A grim guard in black battledress barks out orders: single file, walk faster, keep up! We rarely see the inside of prisons these days, and I imagine the warders have to say 'please' and 'thank you' to the inmates. But in site-specific theatre the old regime of brutality and oppression still holds sway; part of the 'immersive' experience is that nobody ever smiles.
The Serpent's Tooth, staged by Talawa Theatre Company with the Almeida, in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, has an atmospheric venue, a great premise, interesting design ideas and some excellent actors. Its problem is that David Watson's script only generates real drama intermittently and lacks a coherent storyline. I and many others in the audience found our attention wandering from the words the actors were speaking to our decayed Victorian surroundings.
Michael Buffong, who directed the excellent Moon on a Rainbow Shawl at the National Theatre not long ago, has done his best to inject tension into this hour-long sequel to King Lear. It imagines the traitor Edmund held as a prisoner; when an envoy from the new French-backed English authorities arrives to ensure he gets a fair trial, he is met with a baffling series of events. The play has a clever twist at the end, but it's hard not to see it coming well in advance.
Signe Beckmann's design conjures a sinister series of underground bunkers with World War Two artefacts, dimly lit and sparsely furnished, a place where prisoners could easily disappear. But too often the action is static, and the dialogue strays off at a tangent. As a sequel to Shakespeare, Dunsinane, David Greig's exploration of an English occupation of Scotland after the death of Macbeth, is far superior. I love site-specific theatre, but the lesson I took away from this production is that to succeed with an audience, the script has to be every bit as good as in a production that takes place on a single stage.