David Watson’s new play, The Serpent’s Tooth, is a continuation of Shakespeare’s infamous tragedy King Lear. It is currently playing in the atmospheric basement of Shoreditch Town Hall in an Almeida Theatre production in association with Talawa Theatre Company. AYT’s Laura Turner caught up with cast member Babou Ceesay and director Michael Buffong during their busy schedule of performances to find out more about feeling indebted to Shakespeare, contemplating ambition and rehearsal ghosts.

Could you tell us a bit about the play?

Buffong: The Serpent’s Tooth is a companion piece to the Almeida Theatre’s production of King Lear. It takes some of the themes of Lear as its starting point: power, leadership, ambition. Set in an underground prison we find the character Abina, a high-ranking official, has come to put the imprisoned Edmund on trial for crimes against England. Abina is met by the Warden, whose job it is to take him to the prisoner. What happens is that we witness how Abina, frustrated by the Warden on his journey to meet Edmund, becomes more like the man he has come to put on trial.

Ceesay: I play the role of Abina. He is a highly principled man who believes in England and wants to be its saviour. His principles get tested however in the claustrophobic prison and by its inhabitants.

How did you approach the text?

Ceesay: Rehearsals were challenging in the sense that we had to focus on getting the meaning out of the story and bringing out the bits that we thought were critical to telling it properly.

Buffong: As a piece of new writing, one of the things that had to be worked out (both before and during rehearsals) were the rules of the world the writer had created.  In rehearsals we constantly asked what the characters really wanted, how they related to each other, and why they related in that way. It is a process of discovery not only of the world, but also of the style of language the writer has chosen to employ.

The play deals with themes common to Shakespeare and contemporary conflicts. Is this something you wanted to draw on in your production?

Buffong: Many of Shakespeare’s themes are universal. In The Serpent’s Tooth, the themes of power and ambition and the conflict that they create drive the story to its dramatic and bloody conclusion.

Ceesay: The primary conflict in my mind is about what is considered right and wrong and how far we go as human beings to dress things up so they don’t look like what they actually are.

Do you feel a pressure working with a text that is so indebted to Shakespeare?

Ceesay: I’ve worked on Shakespeare plays before and feel that you risk being overwhelmed if you feel indebted. I feel responsible for telling the story along with the rest of the team. We can only do our best.

Buffong: What the writer David Watson has done is give us something that, although sometimes draws on King Lear, is a piece in its own right with its own story. As it stands on its own, a little of the pressure is off!

What are the challenges – and joys – of working in an unconventional theatre space such as the basement of the Shoreditch Town Hall?

Ceesay: Challenges: [there is] no toilet in the space; it can get quite cold; Alex [Campbell, playing Warden] and I both think we’ve seen a ghost. Joys: the space is so atmospheric it brings an extra layer. It is the seventh character in the piece and a very strong one at that.

Buffong: The basement of Shoreditch Town Hall was a gift of a space for this piece. Its eerie corridors and rooms lend themselves perfectly to the setting of the piece (an unmaintained, underground high security prison). The space was like the seventh character. It was technically challenging as we had to design, light and get sound into a space which was not designed for performance. This challenge was more than met by designer Signe Beckmann and the production team at the Almeida.

This is an Almeida production in association with Talawa Theatre Company. Michael, can you tell us more as Artistic Director of Talawa?

Buffong: Talawa is Britain’s primary black-led theatre company. We create outstanding work informed by the wealth and diversity of the black British experience. We invest in talent, build audiences and inspire dialogue with and within communities across Britain. By doing so, we enrich British cultural life. The production has enabled us to broaden our producing partners: Talawa has not worked with the Almeida before and [this project] has introduced the company to an Almeida audience. The Serpent’s Tooth has also raised our profile in Shoreditch, which is of benefit to us as we’re based locally, and we’re developing our studio as a performance space.

What’s next – for you and for Talawa?

Buffong: Our next production will be God’s Property by Arinze Kene, recently named as one of the most promising playwrights in the country. Set in Britain in 1982 against a backdrop of rising unemployment, riots and economic downturn, the story concerns two mixed-race brothers. The older brother has returned home from prison, to find his mother gone and his younger brother dressed as a skinhead and declaring he no longer wants to be black.

The Serpent’s Tooth plays in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall until Saturday 17 November. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.almeida.co.uk/event/serpent.

Talawa’s God’s Property will preview at The Albany, Deptford in February 2013 before its premiere at Soho Theatre and then tours to MAC, Birmingham. For more information, visit http://www.talawa.com.

Image credit: Sheila Burnett