In The Serpent’s Tooth, Michael Buffong’s production of David Watson’s contemporary finale to King Lear, the audience must leave the soft seats of the warm auditorium and take a promenade journey through the dingy tunnels beneath Shoreditch Town Hall. Once engulfed in this military dystopia, we found ourselves willing enough to play the part of detainees and line up body to body by the walls, for fear of straying from the group, taking a wrong turning and losing our way in the dark, uninhabitable world we had entered.

As the characters – a warden, his guards and a visiting diplomat – kicked the plot into action, we were marshalled from room to room, observing characters who appeared to be making little more than directionless conversation. The effect was, at this point, disappointing – Watson’s play appeared to be little more than a scripted babble of disconcerting randomness.

Edmund is locked up, on trial for “the murder of England” – that much we understand. But how the other characters relate to the plot of King Lear, and how matters were to develop, remained uncertain – halted, even – for the first half of the play. The first 20 minutes left me grasping for any remaining shreds of Shakespeare’sLear. I wondered whether Watson’s vision was to use expressionism to create a fragmented world of madness – one that could indeed have formed in the England of Lear’s demise, but that was void of story.

However, as the play unfolded, the random nature of the script eventually revealed its intentions to purposefully provoke us. “Are we barbarians?” we are asked, and soon after, a guard rebels and speaks the thoughts that were in all of our minds – essentially, that the nonsensical ruling of this nightmarish world is ludicrous and stagnant. This moment poignantly echoes Cordelia’s rise against her sisters’ professions of love for their father. However, in Watson’s gory plot, the guard’s truth results in a graphic act of violence as her eyes are gouged out on stage.

The ending felt rushed, with the majority of action taking place in the final five minutes. But there were compensations aplenty for a lack of pace and plot. Alexander Campbell’s performance as the warden was spectacular and his revelation of a new personality and identity late on in the performance was chillingly clever. Buffong’s choice of performance space too was stunning and brought us without choice into the dark and disturbing world of the play, making it frighteningly real. The tunnels were sparsely lit, scattered with ruddy autumn leaves and littered with harsh, metal furniture, perfect for the uncomfortable atmosphere felt by audience and actors alike.

Once the sudden bombardment of plot had sunk in, and we were back on the streets of modern day Shoreditch, it certainly felt like we had been on a journey through England’s post-Lear disarray, not only witnessing it through a play, but experiencing it first-hand through our own participation. Harrowing and lingering.

The Serpent’s Tooth finished at (or near!) the Almeida Theatre on 17 November.

Image credit: Sheila Burnett