This review originally appeared in Exeunt Magazine in March 2018.
“Shepherd’s Bush,” wrote one particularly insensitive Telegraph journalist in 2006, “languishes as the unappetising filling sandwiched between Holland Park and Chiswick.” How times have changed. Local house prices have rocketed; Cressida Bonas, a former flame of Prince Harry’s, has been living in the Bush since 2014. The locals might have nixed the planned £150m redevelopment of the beloved market, but there’s no denying that gentrification has long arrived in the area.
Arinzé Kene probably doesn’t read the Telegraph, but he might read the New Statesman. In one article from 2015, Nicholas Lezard describes gentrification in Shepherds Bush as a virus, and it is precisely this metaphor on which Kene’s febrile new play, which is premiering at the Bush Theatre, hinges. In the first half, Kene depicts himself, Arinzé – a playwright chronicling the inner-city black experience – as a virus, thriving on the deprivation he transfigures into art. In the second, he is a red blood cell: an emblem of the vitality extinguished by high-rise developers and “swanky coffee shops”.
But the hinge, unfortunately, is squeaky. The interval heralds a thematic volte-face that feels less like an epiphany than an attempt to box him out of a narrative bubble and meta-bubble of his own devising. Kene realises this, at least subconsciously: the second half begins with a stunning coup that sees him emerge from a large orange balloon of a chrysalis – which seems to be made of reinforced elastic – as he soliloquies about gentrification.
It’s a bit of a tired theme, and it makes Kene’s generally synaptic writing less, er, vibrant. Some lines from this spoken-word rap feel like a GCSE Geography write-up:
“Viruses raise the rent price so high that small businesses, local businesses
that have been here a long time can no longer survive
so they close down
so the viruses turn it into a Starbucks now
which causes the property value to rise even more”
… and so on.
It raises the question: who exactly is this play for? Many viewers are likely to be budding “viruses”, and what will be learned by the ones that aren’t? Kene’s not seriously trying to induce guilt among the viruses – the play is too playful. He might be trying to connect with the displaced and dispossessed, but the play is too discursive, too unsure about the role of the playwright until right at the end.
So we might surmise that the play is really for Arinzé Kene. I’m fine with this, and you probably will be too, because even when he’s just figuring things out on stage, Arinzé Kene is a deeply impressive figure. I’m not just talking about his physique, though Kene, who spends swathes of the play in stages of undress, would like you to know that he keeps in shape. His role is highly demanding, and he animates it spectacularly, navigating rapid tonal changes with energy and inventiveness – often while making astute points about the quandary of conveying “the black experience”.
This play certainly has the capacity to, and probably will, inspire young playwrights and performers, particularly black ones. Stagings of plays by black men are few and far between, even in London, and even when they’re there it’s not a foregone conclusion they’ll attract the people they’re ostensibly “representing”. The very question of representation is obviously a thorny, contradictory one for Kene – but for all the soul-searching in the first half, all the devil’s-advocate recriminations about writing a “nigga play”, the play still ends with ‘Jungle Shit’, a chanted spoken-word performance that name-checks Wakanda and Black Lives Matter in an affirmation of Kene’s pan-global blackness.
Omar Elerian directs with an effective simplicity that still leaves room for legerdemain. Many things that seem like directorial flourishes are actually in the original script – the chrysalis-balloon, for instance, or the fact that Arinzé’s 40-year-old sister is played by a pre-teen girl. But Elerian adds clever elements of dissociation – when Arinzé’s being pressured by his producer to deliver a play, his back is to the audience and we see him speaking on a screen, only to find out we’re not watching a live video as Arinzé turns around in silence, his screen simulacrum continuing to yammer nervously. Shiloh Coke and Adrian McLeod accompany the spoken-word performances on drums and keyboards respectively; they also have fun with minor roles as externalisations of Arinzé’s black-conscious conscience. Rajha Shakiry’s stage design makes inventive and often comical use of a tight space, while the lighting, courtesy of Jackie Shemesh, serves the play dramatically but never obtrusively.
“I know that too much cross-examination can be destabilising to a piece of art,” says Arinzé’s sister towards the end of Act 1. And yet Kene allows this cross-examination to distend the play, like a balloon that threatens to pop. Don’t let this dissuade you from seeing Misty, though: Kene is a powerhouse performer, a polyvalent poet and a principled, passionate playwright. He’s barely 30. As impressive as this play is, there’s better yet to come.