The Serpent’s Tooth by playwright David Watson is one of the richest new plays I’ve seen all year. Taking its audience to an England under occupation in the tunnels beneath Shoreditch Town Hall, it conjures a land cogently unsure of what it stands for. Inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear, it looks at what happens after the death of Lear’s daughters and allows the country that exists in their wake to draw on the family’s most disturbing notions of each other.
Dropping us in what seems to be a totalitarian state, it becomes clear that despite attempts at uniformity, “England is grieving” as one seemingly nonchalant guard puts it and nothing here is as it seems. No one is sure of who they are or what they’re doing and as the audience are corralled through vast corridors and tiny rooms, we get to watch them figure it out. The most confused is Abina (the completely absorbing Babou Ceesay), an official who arrives at the prison in which the play is set, to ensure that the villainous Edmund gets a fair trial and is duly punished.
Formal, polite and lacking identification, Abina is keen to prove he’s on side, a servant of the nation as much as anyone else. He comes up against a weasely, loquacious prison warden (witty and unsettling Alexander Campbell) who fiercely guards the elusive Edmund.
Outwitted at every turn, Abina, straddles his loyalty to England and his foreignness which is reinforced by everyone he meets there. At the same time, he struggles with his ideas about fairness and justice. He preaches an ethos for an undecided nation and ends up exacting his own version of trial and punishment.
David’s writing is a perfect example of using Shakespeare as part of our country’s story and continuing a discussion about loyalty and rule that the Bard began. Masterfully he has also created something that doesn’t require previous knowledge of Lear at all. But if you are familiar with the Shakespeare story that spawned The Serpent’s Tooth you can draw on it in the many many ensuing discussions.
There’s way too much to say about the effectively varied female guards (Alisha Bailey, Charlie Covell, Imogen Doel and Olivia Morgan) in his hour-long story to fit into this review but I can tell you that their changing positions reflect a multi-dimensional take on women and force. Similarly, Edmund is not a simple villain. His charges being so unspecific and compounded point at the boogie man he has become. A cartoon character to depict evil who, once destroyed, will leave England free to be good again.
My one criticism regards the audience. Shepherded by guards, we never really understand why are we there. Are we Edmund’s fellow prisoners? Are we conspirators? Are we rebels? Because to be simply voyeurs of this story in this particular setting, leaves something missing. More structure to the audience role in relation to the talented performers who play the guards is needed. Nonetheless, I really hope The Serpent’s Tooth is given extended life after this run.
The Serpent’s Tooth runs at Shoreditch Town Hall until 17th November