At the end of King Lear, with Lear, Cordelia and – let’s be honest – almost everyone else dead, Albany tells Edgar and Kent that they must “Rule in this realm and the gored state sustain”. David Watson’s new play, performed deep in the bowels of Shoreditch Town Hall, can be considered as an exploration of what sustaining that gored state might mean. Abina (Babou Ceesay), with the support of the crown and political ambitions of his own, has been sent to the isolated prison where the traitor Edmund is being kept. The eccentric Warden (Alexander Campbell) insists that a messenger is sent to the city to confirm Abina’s credentials before he can be granted access to the prisoner. He also asks if they can eat Abina’s horse, on the understanding that a new one, can be brought back from the city. They are starving. Abina has little choice but to agree.
Abina is there to see that justice is done but also that it is seen to be done. He struggles to sustain his view of the world, as he is increasingly plunged into a dark nightmarish underground maze of chaos and shadows. As the play goes on, doubts begin to emerge about the status of each character within that world. Is Abina a guest or a prisoner? Is the Warden the victim of circumstances he claims to be or does he have more control than he is willing to reveal?
As a response to King Lear, it’s perhaps unsurprising that particular moments of Shakespeare’s play are echoed here with the Warden taking on the role of both patriarch, villain and fool. What is extraordinary though is the undaunted confidence with which Watson throws himself into the language. It is the language, more than the atmospheric setting even, that creates the imaginative space between Shakespeare’s play and the modern world. Abina is courtly but still convincing as a military man. The guards speak like guards but can occasionally surprise with moments of soaring lyricism. None of it feels forced, none of it incongruous with the world that is being created. Everything serves a purpose. There is no showing off.
At only one hour and in a promenade production that involves rotating rooms between every scene, I felt like I wanted more of the rich and terrifying world that we become immersed in. The narrative could have benefited from having a little more breathing space. In particular, the guard’s storyline could have been developed further, considering its centrality in the final moments. Specifically, I wanted to get a better understanding of the nature of their relationship with the Warden and the degree of their complicity.
While The Serpent’s Tooth may open more doors than it closes, it’s nonetheless a memorable and haunting piece of work from possibly our most underrated young dramatist. I am not convinced that it needs to be seen in a promenade production like this but, scene for scene, Michael Buffong gets strong performances from the entire cast, with Campbell, perhaps inevitably, stealing the show as the Warden. It’s a pity that this production has such a short run and that the capacity each night is so low because it deserves to be more widely seen.