I have a confession. The first time I saw Arinzé Kene’s Misty at Bush Theatre, I didn’t get the hype. Misty. Arguably one of the most talked about and successful plays of 2018. Sold out world premiere; run extended. Sold out west end transfer; run extended. The hashtag #MistyThePlay exploded with praise and implorings from Misty Evangelists to go see it. It was acclaimed not only by seasoned critics, but also by the general population. And, notably, it was acclaimed by a new generation of theatre-goers – many of whom had never step foot in a theatre before. Nevertheless, it didn’t resonate with me on as profound a level as it seemed to with those people.
That is, until I saw understudy Kibong Tanji take to the stage, for a one-off matinee performance during the show’s transfer run at Trafalgar Studios. There was much talk about the show’s understudy. Some questioned if there should be one at all. I was in that camp. Misty, I vehemently argued, is Arinzé Kene and Arinzé Kene is Misty – the two are inextricably linked. If Kene cannot perform, the show must go dark. Who wants to see anybody other than Arinzé Kene topless while the assistant stage manager on the production throws waterbombs at him?
How wrong I was. It’s not simply a case of who wants to see Kibong Tanji in Misty but a case of who needs to see her in it. The story – in which main character Arinzé grapples with being an emerging creative, who happens to be black, and all the external influences and pressures that interact with this fact – enters a new realm with a black woman centre stage. Plotlines that had previously passed by relatively unnoticed surfaced with intense clarity – the fight on the bus; Jade’s miscarriage. The psychedelic penultimate scene arrived with a palpable anguish that ripped through the place like a tornado. Though the script is the same,Tanji’s version is, somehow, different.
Some of the difference is tangible in the detail of the consistently brilliant Rajha Shakiry’s design; the familiar orange beanie is swapped for a maroon beret, bringing to mind notions of rebellion and revolution. The change is small but the effect is mighty. And that is part of the thrill of it. We are still in a time where putting a black woman in the lead of a West End show feels revolutionary; it’s an act of rebellion against the status quo. Where normative society says homosexuality is a Bad Thing, this performance says Fuck You and puts a queer love story on a West End stage. Where the patriarchy is relentless in its efforts to silence women, Tanji’s mezzo-soprano raises the roof and resonates to the skies.
But in many ways the difference is intangible. It’s in an emotion evoked or a truth realised. And obviously that’s subjective. What I thought, when I argued that Misty is for Arinzé Kene and only Arinzé Kene, is that the story was too specific, too personal, for another person to be able to deliver any meaning from it. Seeing another person in the role highlights the not only the mastery of Kene’s script but also the depth of his vision. Misty interrogates the worst of the industry, whilst exhibiting the best of it. To create a piece for oneself that not only succeeds, but gains – so profoundly – with somebody else in the lead role is craftsmanship at its finest. Bring Misty back, I say. And give Kibong Tanji a whole run.