Theatre: A Review of David Watson’s ‘The Serpent’s Tooth’

January 13, 2024
2 mins read

By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

Friday, November 16, 2012.

David Watson’s excellent answer riddim to the Almeida’s King Lear continues at Shoreditch Town Hall until 17 November, so try your best to catch it. If not, you’ll be missing out on a quite superb, albeit harrowing and disturbing, piece of theatre.

Escorted from the foyer of Shoreditch Town Hall by several intimidating, uniformed Guards to the sepulchral and tomb like basement, Tim Mascall’s atmospheric lighting, and Steven Brown’s eerie soundscape increases the disorientation.  Along the route – navigating shadowy tunnels, walls lined with military apparel – frightening sounds assault the senses.  The 50 plus audience – on its feet for most of the time – experience sensory deprivation and overload.

Signe Beckmann’s transformation of this underground warren is meticulously detailed – bare walls, exposed brickwork and pipework, overturned chairs, crates, cobwebs on light shades, a floor layered with unknown objects – perhaps dead mice, maybe rodent droppings.  It’s a scene of mayhem and chaos matched by the anarchic events to come.

The starting point is the mayhem following the death of King Lear. Some knowledge of Shakespeare is useful but not compulsory because the strength of Watson’s concise and credible writing ensures that this drama stands on its own feet, in its own right. Into this volatile episode of internecine political intrigue and assassination Abina – a loyal supporter of a government tenaciously but falteringly holding on to a fragile power – is sent to oversee the political trial of a notorious traitor.

Babou Ceesay’s Abina gives a standout performance – distinguished, authoritative and imposing.  His voice resonant, his demeanour persuasive, but frighteningly corrupted by the nightmarish scenario, unwittingly trapped and incommunicado.

Alexander Campbell’s deranged wild-eyed, twitchy and manic Warden appears to be in control here. His performance is a good one but maybe the only jarring note and perhaps exaggerated – manic lunacy and hysteria rather than calculated psychosis. The four Guards [all female – a comment on something perhaps] display vulnerability as well as culpability, each aiding and abetting the brutal environment with wilful, malicious relish.  Imogen Doel’s Guard B appears naïve; Charlie Covell solid and commanding as Guard A; Olivia Morgan’s Guard C is persuasive and Guard D traumatised, weak and susceptible in Alisha Bailey’s depiction.

It wasn’t explicit but perhaps the dialogue given to these women – sometimes banal, some humour seeing to fall flat – was a comment on abusive power and oppression made trivial.

The dystopian vision presented in David Watson’s The Serpent’s Tooth is perhaps not as outlandish as this production suggests. Recently revealed evidence of British torture camps in Malaya and Kenya; the northern Irish H-Blocks of the 1970s and 1980s; Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Bagrham Air Base in Afghanistan, and so-called Black sites dotted around the world as part of the US empire’s network of torture centres where people hunted down by the revenge seeking US military are extraordinarily rendered and disappeared into a Kafkaesque nightmare of anonymity and endless brutal, incarceration – all are recent and very real.

Don’t expect a warm night in a comfortable environment though. That’s not a criticism as such – just an observation of Talawa Artistic Director Michael Buffong’s skilful and cleverly directed 60 minute promenade production. You’ll be an observer to an unfolding crime, feel the distress and anguish of the six characters and get a full-on experience. Even as the play is enthralling but disturbing, the surroundings and environment won’t soothe any discomfort – nor are they expected to.  And surely, this work can be reprised as an accompaniment to Shakespeare’s regularly produced tragedy.

Main picture by Sheila Burnett

The Serpent’s Tooth

By David Watson

Directed by Michael Buffong

Until 17 November 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.

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