As the capital gears up for the London Olympics this summer, the chaos of last August’s riots seems like a distant unravelling nightmare. Yet in car parks, loading bays, and town squares across the country, battle lines are currently being drawn and redrawn. The focal point of a new magic realist show and its two warring tribes, this territorial conflict is being resurrected – and it’s guaranteed to provoke fresh debate about gang boundaries still very much alive in the capital.
“It was almost prophetic of the riots”, muses poet and performer Inua Ellams, about his new piece. “I wrote it before they even happened. But the thinking behind the writing and staging of the show definitely had a far-sighted political slant – that idea of shedding light on tribal zones that still persist in London. I’m hoping the right people see this show”.
The piece in question is Knight Watch, an tale of violent gang culture and the pursuit of harmony in an urban world eerily reminiscent of London. It’s Ellams’ latest poetic work, a follow-up to his Black T-Shirt Collection which was staged at the National Theatre, and an intriguing concept: a colourful four-part verbal tapestry that powerfully imagines a world beyond our own. Having just performed the piece as part of Word on the Street programme at the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival (GDIF), it will continue its national tour of outdoor spaces this summer, starting with the International Student Drama Festival in Sheffield.
Such itinerancy mirrors Ellams’ own poetic heritage. “I’m descended from Hausa nomads who just travelled from place to place in Nigeria with their cattle. That idea of being a nomad is at the core of my voice as a writer because I fool around with different styles and take inspiration from just about anything – which means I have this need to explore communal experiences regardless of where I am”, he agrees. “Living in the city where there are barriers to what is nomadic is my inspiration. If you’re part of an urban tribe, you can’t freely move about without fear or danger. This is definitely an attempt to engage with those topics.” The result is a piece that is unafraid to tackle sweeping themes, and then shares them far and wide. Knight Watch is an easily dismantled show that moves from space to space across the country, transporting its audiences to a war-torn city that is enormous in scope but flexible in nature.
Ellams speaks boldly about the concept of his show. Heavily influenced by magic realist novels such as One Hundred Days of Solitude and Like Water for Chocolate, Knight Watch neatly disrupts realist themes with the miraculous – merging the modern with the mythical. “I’ve been a fan of magic realism for a long time – one of my favourite novels is called The Famished Road by the African author Ben Okri. It stems from my sense of poetry and how I started writing”, elaborates Ellams when I ask where the tale’s magic realist element originated. “Back in the day, when I was asked to describe my poetry voice, I used to say that I had one leg planted on Earth and the other on Mars – and that I’d give birth to poetry this way”. Wherever his feet are planted, Ellams is certainly a poet capable of making imaginative leaps –and never fails to successfully land on the other side, wherever that may be.
Magic realism is not the only notable influence on Knight Watch. Although set in a world that is supposedly removed from London, the parallels are unmistakeable. Known for drawing on influences as eclectic as Keats and hip hop, Shakespeare and Mos Def, here Ellams effortlessly conjures a city very much like our own, an urban milieu where warring tribes fight for supremacy. It all sounds vaguely familiar. “Originally, I wrote the first part of the story for a workshop I was supposed to run at the Albany Theatre and I created a rivalry from inhabitants of Nunhead where I live, and inhabitants of Herne Hill in South London. So in the story, the House of Herne refers to Herne Hill and the Knights of New Town refer to Nunhead”, Ellams explains. Although it was written last summer, Ellams kept it under wraps as the riots spiralled out of control.
Besides exploring London’s gang culture, the piece also touches on other matters. “I think the story doubles as an analogy for environmental problems”, Ellams continues passionately. “Like global warming, it’s about trying to bring balance to a city that conveniently destroys vegetation. At the end of the story, all the inhabitants stand on the destroyed city walls and looks out on an entire city that has been colonised by concrete buildings, and the show is about going back into those lands and creating a harmony that isn’t destructive to the natural order of things”. With this in mind, Ellams used one of his favourite cartoons, The Last Airbender, recently made into a film, as his environmental springboard – dividing Knight Watch into four parts that represent the four classical elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. For those unfamiliar with the cartoon’s concept, Ellams enthusiastically explains that the Last Airbender must restore balance to the four elemental tribes after a comet strikes Earth and fire destabilises nature’s harmony.