One of the defining moments of the 20th century was the toppling of the hated Berlin Wall in 1989. For many, its destruction was a symbol of a new era and new freedoms.
When Daniel Keene’s The Serpent’s Teeth premiered in 2008, however, a new wall was under construction – the Israeli ‘separation wall‘.
A decade later, barriers are going up all over the world, says Kristine Landon-Smith, director of a new production of Keene’s two-part drama staged at the Kings Cross Theatre.
“In the rehearsal room everyone is talking about Brexit and Trump’s Mexican border wall. It feels like everything is closing in. I think anyone who reads the news will understand why we’re doing this. It is the right play for now.”
Keene’s script comprises two parts: Citizens is set at the dividing wall of an unspecified war-torn country; Soldiers, which was commissioned for the STC Actors Company as a companion piece to Citizens, is set in an air force hangar, where family members gather to receive the bodies of their loved ones lost in an unspecified conflict abroad.
Landon-Smith’s staging features a culturally-inclusive cast of 15 actors. “I always work with diverse casts,” she says. “When I work as a director, I try to curate what the actors give me so I am often curating around their cultural differences and that has an impact on the work.
“For example, the second play, Citizens, is set in an air force hangar of a First World country. From that you might imagine they are all white people. But casting people from different backgrounds, you see that everyone is affected by tragedy and death and grief. This kind of loss is global.”
Landon-Smith developed her practice in the United Kingdom. In 1989, she co-founded the London-based Tamasha Theatre Company, one devoted to the telling of stories from the Asian subcontinent.
“I’m half-Indian and my business partner was Indian and at that time there were very few stories of the Asian diaspora told on British stages,” Landon-Smith says. “We set it up to do one show and ended up running it for 23 years.”
Ten years into the company’s history, Landon-Smith set up a training wing. “A lot of actors would come to train with Tamasha because they were experiencing difficulty in mainstream environments. They were never asked to bring their first languages, or languages they might use at home, into the professional space. When I started working with them multi-lingually, or in a multi-vernacular way, those actors found enormous power in being allowed to bring their own identities to the floor, without trying to mimic something else.”
Since leaving Tamasha, Landon-Smith continues to focus on untold stories and culturally diverse casts. “It wouldn’t occur to me to do anything else,” she says.
She dislikes the expression ‘colour-blind casting’.
“It’s a terrible expression. I prefer ‘colour-conscious casting’. You can’t just cast people for representation’s sake and say it’s all fine. We are not all one. We are all different.”
The Serpent’s Teeth builds on work previously created or hosted by Kings Cross Theatre and bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company. Over the past four years, this small theatre has hosted some of the most diversely cast productions in Sydney, including Jatinga, The Laden Table, and Black Jesus.
Saleh Saqqaf is an actor of Arab-Jordanian heritage. “I feel like I am valued in this play,” he says.
“I bring my culture and my feeling and everything to the production. I don’t feel like a stranger. Here, I feel we are sharing the experience and sharing the culture and the diversity among the actors really shows the audience that conflict is happening everywhere.”
Several in the cast have a rare opportunity to speak in a language other than English. Landon-Smith calls for some of Keene’s lines to be delivered in Vietnamese, German and French.
“I used my language, Arabic, in the rehearsal and it helped me,” says Bernadette Fam, whose family heritage is Egyptian. “I connected to my language in a way I’ve never done before, because I don’t usually use it in my every day life. I found I could connect to my characters through the language. To have permission to use my home language as part of my process is something I’ve never experienced before.”
It also opens up the play for new audiences, adds Lisa Huynh. “My parents speak English but it’s not as good as their Vietnamese and I’m so proud to invite them to the show. They are flying interstate to see it. Even though I don’t have a big role they will be able to understand it, which doesn’t happen often when they come to see my shows because we don’t often celebrate diversities within a cast.”
The Serpent’s Teeth plays at Kings Cross Theatre, November 9-24