“Do poets get to be happy?”
It’s a rare production that really makes you sit up and pay attention but from the moment the percussive handclaps mark the beginnings of Kristiana Rae Colón’s ferocious new play Octagon, its unique energy electrifies the stage of the Arcola. Set in the world of slam poetry, 8 young Chicagoans prepare for lyrical battle but out on the streets of contemporary America, the struggle is painfully real as issues of race, gender and class characterise an inequality they can only protest by using their words.
And what words. Colón hooks her first half around the competition for a much-vaunted spot on Chimney, Chad and Palace’s team as five hopefuls take to the stage to deliver three minutes of poetry to win enough points from the judges. Watched over by Estella Daniels’ utterly magnificent compere who does a magisterial job in working the audience, subjects from Malala to Miley and racial profiling to the sexual gaze rattle round the theatre in some truly mesmerising and memorable performances.
But it’s not just about the poetry. Under the guise of filming a documentary, the poets all make their various cases for why they do what they do, the injustices that motivate them, the potential celebrity that lures them, the artistic purity associated with the hard-won right to free speech. And their lives are all further intertwined through sexual intrigue, their tangled connections mostly revolving around the fiercely complicated Prism, a woman who both challenges and is challenged by the world around her.
Lara Rossi is exceptional in the role, an elemental force of nature whose frank sexuality is presented brilliantly matter-of-factly by director Nadia Latif, even as the dynamics of the group become increasingly threatened. And the way in which Colón shows us how her lovers struggle to reconcile her sexual freedom with their personal feelings exposes much about modern masculinity – Martins Imhangbe’s Atticus and Harry Jardine’s Chad both standing out here.
It is the confidence of Octagon that is so utterly seductive though, of all sides of Supporting Wall’s production. The casting (Annelie Powell) is just pitch-perfect – Crystal Condie’s impassioned Jericho is superb, and Asan N’Jie’s Palace and Solomon Israel’s Chimney offer up strong work too. Christopher Nairne’s lighting design of blinding flashes is perfectly complemented by Simon Slater’s urgently textured soundscape and in the staging of the final scene, Latif and Colón create something so absolutely stunning, it will long be etched in my mind.
Genuinely unique and unexpectedly moving, Octagon is a sensational piece of theatre – hugely recommended.