Octagon (L-R Asan N'Jie, Solomon Israel, Harry Jardine) Photograph: Anna Söderblom
Octagon (L-R Asan N’Jie, Solomon Israel, Harry Jardine) Photograph: Anna Söderblom

It didn’t take long for Nadia Latif, director of Homegrown, the controversially-cancelled play about young converts to radical Islam, to get back in the directing saddle.
At the Arcola this month Latif has directed Octagon, a new play by US spoken word artist Kristiana Rae Colón.

Referencing a huge range of contemporary issues from the nature of creativity, feminism and sexuality to personal legacy, Octagon depicts a group of would-be slam poets on the road to the national finals at the titular nightclub.

What resonates so strongly in the piece is the fact that it is written by an insider. The lyrics of a seasoned poet lend the text an authenticity that cannot be manufactured.

And the extremely strong cast of eight is up to the challenge. Each poem is delivered with such urgency and relish that it sounds as if the performers had penned the words themselves.

Estella Daniels as the host of the knockout rounds commands the room with an ethereal grace, striking fear into those who dare to cross her whilst gently teasing the audience into whoops and claps when a rhyme deserves it.

As she states at the top of the show, the judges are looking for poetry that “shivers your timbers, halogens your heart and sizzles your spine”, and we are not disappointed.

At its explosive best, Crystal Condie as Jericho delivers ‘Malala writes to Miley Cyrus’ with danger and urgency.

To the Taliban gunmen she says: “I spat I am Malala like acid back in his face” reminding Miley that her “right to gyrate didn’t come free”.

Latif’s direction is clean and specific, echoing the sharp clarity of the text. In one of the final moments, the poets reflect on whether they will go ahead with the national slam final given all that has happened.

What emerges is a scene, written in verse, which feels so fresh and present that it might be entirely improvised. Like great verse writers before her, Colón’s rhymes please the ears, but it is her complex and thoughtful provocations which follow you home.

Just beneath the surface, there are densely riddled arguments around sexuality, race and religion that go fathoms deep, the intricacy of their phrasing inviting you to mouth the words whilst you chew over the ideas a little longer.

For all its verbal dexterity however, the play does lack structural rigour. The narrative thread on which the poetry hangs is weak and the scenes a hotch-potch of different forms from monologue to drama to more abstract scenes.

But for the authenticity of the live experience, Octagon certainly hits the mark.

Octagon is at Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL until 17 October.


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