Foreground Babou Ceesay (Abina) and background Alexander Campbell (Warden) in The Serpent's Tooth Photographer Sheila Burnett
A dead man poses no threat. But in David Watson’s response to King Lear, Edmund is very much alive. The man who plotted to overthrow the crown is incarcerated within the cacophonous vaults beneath Shoreditch Town Hall. Government official Abina played by Babou Ceesay arrives at the prison to ensure Edmund receives a fair trial but his efforts to ‘bring a solid core to this beleaguered land’ are dashed at every turn by the wild eyed Warden. As tensions reach fever pitch and the attending guards begin to question orders who can say how this hour long production will end.
No piece of theatre has ever made me feel so thoroughly engrossed in the action.
This world premiere shuns the flip seats and air conditioning of the playhouse in favour of a promenade through the town hall’s subterranean network of vaults. The audience is marched single file through the winding corridors and cavernous chambers by a squad of female soldiers as each scene takes place in a different room. Designed by Signe Beckmann the space has been modified to give the illusion of former military grandeur with battered leather topped desks and rusted stoves. Attention to detail is first rate, with tiny factors such as crucifixes having slipped upside down or football graffiti feeding into the overall ambience. The complete immersion in the story is facilitated not only by the incredible location but by the high momentum of the piece; many of the scenes already being in full swing as the spectators obediently file into the room. As a member of the audience thrust to within an arm’s length of the actors I felt a conflicting sense of direct involvement and sordid voyeurism.
The narrative appears at first to be relatively linear and is focused around the power struggle between Abina and the Warden. The antagonistic relationship is surprisingly comical during exchanges between the erratic and reedy voiced Warden and the dogmatically efficient Abina whose imagery rich phraseology resonates in deep bass tones. Ceesay’s portrayal of the uptight bureaucrat is commanding; his rigid dedication to the protocol of a bygone age extending into obsession. Arrant fury seethes beneath his meticulously buttoned uniform and it is this sense of unpredictability which permeates his performance. Alexander Campbell plays the Warden superbly; he is very much a part of the scenery as he addresses the audience directly and stomps lopsidedly along the line of spectators. His flailing arms and darting eyes exemplify his violent capriciousness in this industrial cavern where he is lord of all he surveys.
Performances are excellent and the set gives the theatregoer a strange sense of watching a play whilst riding a ghost train. An assault on the senses my only criticism of this play is that it needs to extend its run as missing it would be a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions.
The sparse lighting by Tim Mascall expertly highlights the mood of throbbing anticipation, whilst Steven Brown’s sound effects ensure that the audience is plagued by a fear of the unknown as pipes clang and bars rattle. The four female guards form the backbone of this post apocalyptic landscape giving the story some context. With regional accents and diverse personalities they seem to represent the general populace; each actress performs admirably but Charlie Covell is particularly effective as the stern scouser fiddling with a flick knife. Produced in association with Talawa Theatre Company this piece is directed by their artistic director Michael Buffong whose use of timing, staging and tension are fantastic. Face offs are conducted from opposite ends of corridors and characters slouch in archways framing each scene in the style of a film set.
No piece of theatre has ever made me feel so thoroughly engrossed in the action. Any work incorporating the Canon runs the risk of being derivative but Watson’s writing is anything but. The script is lyrical but solid and constructs an authentic plot with subtle references to the play, which inspired it. Performances are excellent and the set gives the theatregoer a strange sense of watching a play whilst riding a ghost train. An assault on the senses my only criticism of this play is that it needs to extend its run as missing it would be a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions.
The Serpent’s Tooth was at Shoreditch Town Hall from 7-17 November 2012
Babou Ceesay interview, Serpent’s Tooth
Michael Buffong interview, Talawa Theatre