Josephine Balfour Oatts talks to Indhu Rubasingham about finally getting White Teeth to the stage, not using the ‘m’ word and leaky dressing rooms.
It seems that the whole world is demanding the attention of Indhu Rubasingham. In her office at the peak of the Kiln Theatre, the Artistic Director sits with a coffee cup in one hand and her mobile phone in the other. It is early morning, and the newly refurbished spaces beneath have begun to stir, filling steadily with soft footsteps and the distant whirring of a hoover. The first stage adaptation of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth has begun – a mighty project that has been five years in the making.
Written in 2000, Smith’s debut novel is wonderfully dense, at just over 540 pages in length. In it, the melting pot of NW6 becomes the backdrop of wartime friends Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones, along with three-generations worth of their familiar and friendly relations. Directed by Rubasingham and adapted by playwright Stephen Sharkey, this retelling of Smith’s epic tale feels altogether different than the only other endeavour of its kind; a four-part television series that aired in 2002, with each episode giving focus to a major male character.
“I’d call it a homage to the novel, rather than an adaptation” Rubasingham says slowly, as she revels in the delights that the live experience will bring to White Teeth. One such thrill is the distinct narrative voice present within the novel – a wry, clever wordsmith with unmatched observations and staggering witticisms. This element of Smith’s work has been used as a way into the performance, giving two characters (who are not major players in the original) roles as narrators to help form the framework of the production. Alongside this, there are thirteen songs that have been written to accompany the action. Rubasingham nods, emerging from a swig of caffeine. “It’s not the M-word!” she laughs, her voice climbing an octave in earnest, “it’s a play with music”.
Each song acts as a tool to help draw out the heart of the novel – an element that once planted, kept on growing. “Zadie captures the gooey mess of identity beautifully,” Rubasingham smiles, her good humour infectious. Giving White Teeth its own sound has been a means of amplifying the power of this joyous story, while also acting as a motor for time travel. The adventures within jump between present-day London – specifically across 1974-1992 – before darting to World War 2, then flashing back to India, Jamaica and Continental Europe.
Aesthetically, there is a constant juxtaposition of the Iqbal and Jones family. In light of this, their home, Kilburn, also becomes a character within the production. The action takes place on its High Street, which makes the Kiln Theatre the perfect space to showcase this major world premiere. It is ingenious meta-theatricality, with the play already known affectionately as a ‘love letter’ to this particular part of the capital. The characters also undergo small acts of transformation throughout. As with The Lehman Trilogy performed at the National Theatre earlier this year, the ensemble cast make use of minimal changes to costume and setting. Due to its musicality, pace and rhythm are key. “There are no big set pieces” says Rubasingham. Instead, the focus has been on “simple gestures to tell us where we are”.
The office phone rings loudly, its cry underscoring our conversation. Rubasingham speaks above it, stewing over the “Rubik’s Cube” of challenges that have presented themselves throughout the creative process. For her, there has always been a worry that the project might not go ahead. This appears to have stemmed from the pressure to capture the full length and breadth of the novel, while also “allowing the stage version to be its own [entity]”. The aim is for the play to exist independent of its lineage so that those who have never read the book can enjoy it, while those who know and adore its tremendous textures can continue to do so.
It was at a rehearsed reading two years prior that the company unlocked the production. “It has been a true collaboration,” Rubasingham sighs. Sharkey especially has “been both precious and generous”. His loyalty to Smith’s writing is pronounced, working with respect that has been mirrored by Paul Englishby, whose score has helped to lift White Teeth from page to stage. She pauses. Her mobile is buzzing, pocketed only moments earlier. She answers quickly, wincing at talk of a blocked drain. “There is a leak in the dressing room,” she groans – yet another iron to thrust into the fire.
According to Rubasingham, themes of identity and multiculturalism felt apt when the team first began climbing this artistic mountain, “but now it feels really important because of what is going on around us,” she says, more serious now. “We are in dark times and [this play] is the antidote to that”. In dramatizing different perspectives and championing unheard voices, this story channels the vibrant world of its characters, aligning their experiences with that of Londoners today. “I want people to love it and enjoy it and be singing the songs as they leave the theatre” she beams, giving me a hug as we part ways. Her warmth is echoed in the rich maroon that colours the walls. The building feels roused now, stretching its limbs ready for the day ahead, yawning just as I step out of the door.
White Teeth is playing at the Kiln Theatre until December 22. For more information and tickets, see the website.