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7 November 2018

A small cast is telling a big story in the stage adaptation of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth

Plus: Royal Court’s ear for eye.

By Mark Lawson

In the north-west and south-west of London – in one postal district noted for low incomes and another notorious for high earners – a pair of premieres simultaneously address racial difference.

Outside the second show in the opening season at the Kiln in Kilburn stood a silent, candle-holding group, which, on press night, included the former local MP and mayor of London Ken Livingstone. They were continuing a protest at artistic director Indhu Rubasingham’s decision to rename a theatre that was for 38 years the Tricycle.

As objectors view the new identity, reportedly brainstormed by branding experts, as a form of geographical cleansing, it is ironic (or, perhaps, apologetic) that the latest production could scarcely be more territory-specific. White Teeth – adapted from Zadie Smith’s debut novel by Stephen Sharkey, with songs by Paul Englishby – is largely set on or around Kilburn High Road, where the Kiln stands.

Published in 2000, Smith’s novel takes place mainly between 1975 and 1999, with flashbacks to sketch the earlier lives of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, who meet as British soldiers in the Second World War before settling in peacetime Kilburn. Archie marries a Caribbean woman, and their daughter Irie Jones, her combination of exoticised and Anglo-standard names echoing the novelist’s, provides the main plot-line through friendship with Samad’s twin sons, Magid and Millat. An 18-year-old book hovers uneasily between contemporary and period – a problem that Sharkey attempts to solve through a new framing tale making the main action a 2018 hallucination experienced by Irie’s twentysomething daughter, Rosie, after a dental emergency.

The inevitable loss in dramatised fiction is authorial voice, but the staging by Rubasingham (one of the most reliably vivid British directors) finds decent equivalents for Smith’s verbal and formal playfulness. Time jumps are indicated by cast-members holding up number cards (1-9-8-4) like judges on Strictly Come Dancing. Actors change characters in mid-speech, conjuring up an enjoyably disruptive device from the necessities of a small cast telling a big story. Michelle Austin switches hilariously between Mad Mary, a bag-lady evangelist; a pretentious head teacher; and a posh West Hampstead woman.

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The interleaved songs suggest that the Kiln may fancy White Teeth as its own version of Sunny Afternoon, the musical about the Kinks that became a lucrative hit for the Hampstead Theatre. In that case, the tunes were established pop hits. Here, the original numbers include a thumping end to the first half – “It’s not the end of the world/It’s just a boy and a girl!” – and a later nicely rhymed lyric about London class stereotypes (“Radio 4/Wellies by the door”), but the score needs a couple more stand-outs to become the smash that, with further work, it could be.

Although touching on racism and the radicalisation of young black people, White Teeth submerges serious issues under a puppyish desire to please the audience. Treating the same concerns with an exactly opposite attitude – deliberately unsparing in length, content, and tone – is the latest play by a writer-director who causes regular emergency meetings of the Guild of Media Sub-Editors through her eschewal of capital letters, apparently a form of syntactical democracy.

The subject of debbie tucker green’s ear for eye is racial discrimination in Britain and America, or, as tucker green presumably thinks of them, the uk and us. The 130 unbroken minutes comprise three linguistically and visually distinct sections, using combinations of 16 actors (Tosin Cole, Lashana Lynch and Demetri Goritsas are outstanding), who, when not speaking, stand frozen in images reminiscent of the human almost-still lives of the video artist Bill Viola.

The first and longest part alternates duologues and monologues about responses to racism: ranging from submission (an African-American mother instructs her son in how not to inflame white cops) to violent resistance (an activist son challenges his pragmatic dad to “give me a reason not to” turn to bomb or bullet). The jagged, elusive speech in these scenes contrasts with the more conventional, conversational middle section, suggesting a racial-political version of David Mamet’s Oleanna, between a white male and a black female American academic, over the case of a radicalised boy. The words in the third part are verbatim: pre-recorded film of white people reading out American, French and British colonial segregation laws and notices, dating from 1850 to more recently.

I sometimes craved the theatrical equivalent of a freeze-frame to pause the terrible flow, or contemplate something more slowly. But the sense of being trapped in a headlock is surely tucker green’s intention.

Although relentless, repetitive austerity is not always a theatrical virtue, there is political and editorial purpose, especially in London’s richest district, in challenging the audience to look away, stop listening or (as some did) walk out. Its willingness to risk being thought a bad night helps make eye for ear such a powerful and good one. 

“White Teeth” runs until 22 December; “ear for eye” runs until 24 November

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This article appears in the 07 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state