‘What’s past is prologue’, cites Zadie Smith as her premise to White Teeth. As the characters hurtle towards the uncertainty of a new millennium they must consider how their heritage has shaped their present state. In Stephen Sharkey’s theatrical adaptation, however, the spectator is exposed to the epilogue of Smith’s 2000 debut novel. It is 2018 and Irie Jones’ daughter Rosie is desperate to discover her paternity. Whilst in a coma, unconscious Rosie is visited by her mother in a dream and is shown her origins through a lens of nostalgia and unresolved teenage angst in possibly the most tenuous, exasperating and irrelevant adaptation I have seen to date.
In the original text, Smith tackles entrenched xenophobia, explores religious radicalisation and satirises the white middle class. White Teeth’s quirky plot and freshness in tone is reflected perfectly in the idiosyncratic characters and their complex and evolving relationships. Likewise, in the theatrical version, tasteless musical numbers and cringey dialogue wholly compliment the two-dimensional characters and shallow relationships depicted. Sharkey’s adaptation is as naff and irritating as Smith’s novel is witty and powerful.
As a white woman born in 1993, I do not claim to be any authority on the racial politics of twentieth century London. However, for me, part of the beauty of White Teeth comes from Smith’s depiction of the diaspora of North West London. This diverse melting pot of cultures coexisting and clashing on a daily basis is as droll as it is poignant. Onstage however, cultures often feel stereotyped, seemingly exaggerated for cheap comedic effect and only partially or haphazardly explored.
A fine example of this is when Irie equates her Caribbean heritage to unattractiveness and decides to relax her Afro to achieve straight Caucasian hair. The nub of the issue, Irie rejecting her blackness, is entirely glossed over in this messy stage adaptation and instead a dance routine about hair ensues, complete with pink plastic chairs and cheap wigs.
There is energy aplenty in this production yet it feels entirely misdirected. Clearly Sharkey and director Indhu Rubasingham had creative vision and a talented cast to work with. However, for what they set out to achieve, I feel this was not the text to work with.
Admittedly, adapting work from page to stage is always problematic, not least due to the dilemma of condensing over 500 pages into cohesive two and a half hour piece of theatre. I am sympathetic that interpretations of texts are subjective; artistic licence must be allowed and omissions and changes must naturally be made. The picture created in a reader’s imagination can never be replicated onstage.
However, I left the theatre feeling deeply dissatisfied and confused. To attempt to view Sharkey’s adaptation as a separate entity to Smith’s novel would be a vast disservice to White Teeth. If the Kiln Theatre had wanted to create an homage to Kilburn for their reopening, why not commission a piece of new writing? What could possibly be gained from butchering and reimagining Smith’s work?
‘What’s past is prologue’, writes Smith. Indeed, to even set an adaptation of White Teeth in the future, past the millennium, shows a concerning lack of understanding and maturity. The Kiln Theatre took a gamble with this adaptation and unfortunately it feels contrived, cheap and flimsy. It is a great pity.
White Teeth runs at the Kiln Theatre until 22nd December 2018.
Image © Mark Douet