By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Monday, November 5, 2012.
The innovative annual Open House event is where many of London’s unusual - and mostly off-limits - buildings are made accessible for tour companies. This year, the highlight will be The Serpent's Tooth, a joint production by Talawa Theatre Company and Almeida Theatre.
Talawa’s Artistic Director is Michael Buffong and this promenade production of his forgoes the traditional sit down setting, opting instead for a performance in the bowels of Shoreditch Town Hall.
Talawa is one of the UK's foremost Black-led theatre companies with a quarter of a century’s worth of experience in creating and producing work informed by the wealth and diversity of the Black British experience.
I spoke with the highly respected Buffong recently about the production, his career and the prospects for the development of Black theatre and playwriting. Our conversation kicked off with his enthusiastic description of the play for which he is currently overseeing rehearsals.
“It's got great performances, a strong company and the environment is fantastic – [it’s] a story with a twist. A man comes looking for one person and turns into the person he thought he was looking for”.
Explaining the importance and significance of Talawa linking up with other companies, the Islington born, East London raised Director outlined to me how the liaison with Almeida works and what it does for his Company.
"It's a welcome challenge to take the Almeida away from its Islington home, and for Talawa to be exploring this new and exciting partnership. Almeida always has a companion piece - and this year David Watson has taken the spirit, beauty and power found in King Lear and created something fantastic".
Almeida’s David Watson provides his own rendition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. His response starts almost as soon as the famous Shakespearian production concludes at the Almeida's Islington headquarters. An important part of Almeida's work, their Creative Learning Programme, which commissioned this piece, last year saw Crawling in the Dark (Natalie Mitchell's response to David Eldridge's The Knot of the Heart)] also helmed by Buffong [before he took up his role as Talawa Artistic Director].
As to the preparations for this promenade performance and the Almeida’s first off-site production at the unlikely but atmospheric Shoreditch Town Hall, Buffong explains that he is well-prepared for the challenge of working underneath the “labyrinth like” municipal building and that the audience will be as vital to the performance as the six person cast.
“I think what it presents is quite an exciting space to work in. The challenges presented are quite good – it’s a different environment to tell the story [and] from an audience point of view it is not the same kind of deal as if you go to the theatre [where] you buy your ticket, you are seated and it is very controlled. With this it has an element of danger about it.”
Buffong is neither daunted by the prospect of following Jonathan Pryce's King Lear performance nor intimidated by the task extending Shakespeare’s famous drama in this way.
As he asserts authoritatively: “Serpent's Tooth takes themes in King Lear - of ambition, of leadership [and] explores those. What's also great about it is that it is looking like the Almeida production, especially in the design - Almeida was stripped back [for King Lear] and Shoreditch Town Hall is underground with a crumbling façade.”
With last years The Colored Museum at The Victoria & Albert Museum an under the radar but popular hit it’s not the first time Talawa have presented such work. These types of shows are all part of the eclectic story-telling tradition and Buffong sees them as “becoming more popular as people seek new ways of experiencing theatre.”
But in respect to Talawa’s more traditional productions the Director has already strengthened the Company's legacy with the late Errol Lloyd's respected hidden gem Moon on a Rainbow Shawl a triumph at The National Theatre and an example of fruitful collaboration between Talawa and the so-called mainstream. He’s a little guarded though when I ask him if and when theatre goers can expect similar productions from the Company.
“There is stuff we are looking to bring to you. I have been looking at a couple, but I don't want to overplay my hand”.
He’s more forthcoming about an adaptation of Sam Selvon’s classic story of Caribbean to London migration The Lonely Londoners currently being developed by Roy Williams [Joe Guy, Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, Sucker Punch] in joint work reportedly commissioned by The National Theatre. There’s also the company’s production of Arinze Kene’s On Gods Property to look forward to early next year to keep him busy in his role.
His successful career took off soon after he joined the Theatre Royal Stratford East’s youth drama workshops and culminated - after stage and screen roles - in a stint with 1990s writing, producing performing collective The Posse. He then transferred to the other side of the profession and has raised his profile directing mainstream TV shows, several well-received theatre productions including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the classic Raisin In the Sun, as well as keep it real but no less important Black themed work.
The married father of two acknowledges that his own career demonstrates that Black theatre practitioners are part of the mainstream and can achieve success without being pigeon holed, ghettoised or marginalised
“I guess my career could be looked at as successful and I have managed to do many different things. I absolutely believe that it is mainstream. “
The Serpent's Tooth
By David Watson
Directed by Michael Buffong
07/11/2012 - 17/11/2012
Shoreditch Town Hall
380 Old Street
London EC1V 9LT
Box office 020 7359 4404
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.