Octagon, written by Kristiana Rae Colon, transforms the Arcola Theatre into a downtown American poetry slam.
A team of three men are heading to ‘Octagon’ (the poetry slam battle championships) but there is one spot left on their team up for grabs. New and old, male and female poets battle to win this poetry slam in order to gain the place. There are love triangles formed and questioning of loyalties in this lyrically blessed play. The Arcola has been shaped into an apartment flat, a bar and a club (‘The Junction’). With its brick walls and smoky black room you get a real sense of this world. This simple set uses blinding lights to transfer you to and from scenes. And they really are blinding – you have no choice but to look down and up again to where the next scene has moved to. The actors do a wonderful job of whipping the audience into participating, getting them to speak into the microphone and to clap and cheer to rate the poets. Octagon is full of American finger clicking, like they do on the poetry scene in the US, to show appreciation instead of clapping over the words. It has an authentic feel to it and, despite most of the actors being British, their accents never waver. The play doesn’t try too hard; instead it convinces you with its American gumption and humour. There is more to Octagon than the battle jibes of fierce poets. The play puts poetry into context, about how it is some kids’ “lifeline” to express and feed their demons. Colon gives each of her characters a quality, for example the character Tide is a lover and Chad a believer. These qualities influence the poet’s poems and judgements on others. One of the lead characters is a strong woman called Prism. She doesn’t believe in monogamy and it’s a welcome difference to see a woman who has multiple lovers being understood and having men defend her choice – although, this choice does rattle some of the characters. This gives the play truthful conflicts, for example a scene between Chad the believer (Harry Jardine) who rips apart Prism (Lara Rossi) for her immoral behaviour. Throughout the play there is a strong message of the ‘power of her mouth’. There is a character called Jericho played by Crystal Condie who uses her words to fight battles against the oppression of her Arab culture, using her words to provoke people into action, and you do ponder the ways in which a woman’s mouth is the most powerful. Little mishaps happened such as losing a microphone and a few skipped lines throughout, as well as some moments of distracting staging. For example, when some characters are getting photographed whilst the main scene is happening, my attention was torn. However, I was given a copy of the text and when you open the play it looks like someone has scribbled all over the book; hardly any of the dialogue runs parallel, but chops around the page indicating the next actor to jump in. As a first première and just a week in, there is bound to be a few missed beats in this constantly rhythmical production. The ensemble use their bodies to generate sounds to accompany their poems, clapping and pounding their feet to create back beats. The entire cast is incredibly strong and united. The up-and-coming talent is ripe in this production and there is no weak link, each of them having moments of greatness. I had no idea any of them had English accents until I researched it, as their acting is so convincing. Director Nadia Latif has challenged these actors to portray honesty in a highly poetic setting, and has succeeded. Octagon is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 17 October. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website. Photo: Anna Söderblom