The love story between poetry and theatre goes back a long way, particularly in the English tradition, and so does the debate on why the two do not mix more. And yet, lately, events like the London Word Festival, where poetry is celebrated in theatrical ways and Shakespeare is re-written, indicate that the exchange is still very much happening - if perhaps not in large, West End venues, and not necessarily receiving enough attention.
The 14th Tale, staged for a three-night run at the Arcola Theatre as part of the London Word Festival, is an excellent example of the safe-and-soundness of the relationship between verse and performance. It had been previously staged at the Battersea Arts Centre in 2008, and it is, originally, a BAC Scratch Commission, created in collaboration with producing organisation Fuel. Its author and sole actor, Inua Ellams, is a poet, a teacher, and a graphic artist; but he is also, as he demonstrated at the Arcola, a spontaneous, naturally brilliant performer. The title of the monologue refers to Ellams’ first book of poems, Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales, ‘whilst implying new work’ - it is not, in other words, an adaptation, but a piece written to stand on its own, and stand to be declaimed in a dark room in front of an audience. It is also, admittedly, an autobiographical piece, hence even more strictly linked to lyricism, in which Ellams recounts his childhood and adolescence, all the while exuberantly trying to establish a significant space for himself both in the line of people who came before him, and in the cities in which he grows up, moving from Nigeria to the United Kingdom.
‘I’m from a long line of trouble makers, of ash skinned Africans, born with clenched fists and a natural thirst for battle, only quenched by breast milk’. Perhaps it is because this is the opening line, and because we see Inua-the-character sitting down in a waiting room with people talking and walking around him (maybe a police station or maybe a hospital) and because his clothes are stained with some dense red liquid, that we assume what we assume - that his troublemaking finally caught up with him and something went horribly wrong during one of the many pranks or adventures he organised with his friends, and there is going to be a classically dramatic climax to this dimension of the story, in and out of which we move through a series of flashbacks. The actual situation, only revealed much later, is a good lesson in how predictable our assumptions are, given the right couple of props. Yes, there will be a tragic event, but we will not be forced-fed any social sermon or banal ‘street life’ preaching.
In the small black box of one of the Arcola studios, with only a chair and a spotlight, Ellams recreates Nigeria, Dublin and London, schools and backyards, a girlfriend’s bathroom and a hospital waiting-room. We see him climbing walls that are not there. He moves between present, past and future; in the space of a minute, he turns from the scolding teacher to the scolded pupil to himself as an older spectator of the whole scene; from the kid who is provoking a fight to the kid who is being provoked to the kids who are standing all around in a circle. Our perspective shifts with his, and then the other way around again.
He is helped by Thierry Lawson’s direction, but also by Michael Nabarro’s remarkable use of light, both interventions minimalist and yet clearly fundamental for the piece to work as well as it does. Ellams gets up from a chair where the spotligh illuminated him as an interrogation lamp, to stand at the centre of the performing space, looking above a rectangle of light: in a few seconds, we have moved from the waiting room to a hospital bed. The audience is thoroughly enchanted. Ellams’ words and movements produce worlds and then dissolve them into thin air.
The 14th Tale is not simply poetry read out loud. It is an original, experimental, beautiful encounter between lyrical prose and pure, physical theatre. It was also, for the three nights it was on, a sell-out - which once again goes to show the talent of the London Word Festival in producing events that people do want to see, but that are simply quite hard to find in official seasons.
Run over. See London Word Festival.