Arinzé Kene interview - 'I'm trying to use Misty to push change in the West End'
Currently in full-swing at Trafalgar Studios, Misty - Arinzé Kene’s musical onslaught on the gentrification of London and how to write a play about it - has just extended its West End run after its transfer from the Bush Theatre.
And rightly so. Not only does he provide some insight and truths about this city and the theatre community that no one else is presenting on stage, but he does so with a fluid fusion of rap, grime, poetry and visuals. He is making people sit up and listen to what he has to say, while making diverse audiences feel like the West End has something for them.
We spoke to Arinzé about Misty, how it came about (or how it nearly didn’t happen at all), and how he feels about being the second black British playwright to have work staged in the West End.
Misty is one hell of an energetic show, was it always going to be so lively?
It definitely evolved into something so energetic, I wouldn't do this to myself. It just kept snowballing. When we did half of it for the first time I collapsed, it was like “Oh my god, that's a lot”. And then your body gets used to it. What is really hard is that when a show ends its run, you get phantom adrenaline at the same time every night. It gets to 6pm and I start to get ready to do something. And then there's nothing to do. I'm not looking forward to that in November.
How did Misty first come about?
I was commissioned by Bush in 2012, but I didn't know what I wanted to write. I went away, did some other work and came back three years later. I came to Madani [Younis, artistic director] and I said, “Look, nothing's coming and I don't have any ideas, I'd like to pay back this commission”. He told me he didn’t want me to do that, and to take my time. Then I had the idea for Misty and I started writing it.
What was that initial inspiration for the show?
I got the idea because I moved back to Hackney which is where I grew up, and I saw the gentrification that had affected quite a few people I’d grown up with. We would meet up and we talk about it, and I just thought it might make a really good story or discussion for London to have.
Misty is quite a meta-play - a lot of it is about you writing the show – did the idea of putting yourself in the play come naturally?
It was very unnatural actually, but the reason why we made a meta-play was because while we were writing Misty I realised that we needed to have me tell the story on the stage. And I wasn't even sure if it would have worked. I've never done anything like that before. But we gave it a shot.
The piece very much feels like you holding up a mirror to the theatre community, was that an intention of yours?
I don’t know if it was an intention, but I couldn’t have made Misty without doing that. To have this frank discussion about the changing of London and the career of a creative like me – inner city, working class, black – I feel like if we were going to have an honest discussion, you have to hold the mirror. If I’m going to be honest about me, then I’m going to come for you too! I’m going to open you up, and I think that’s what the play does.
You’re the second black British playwright to have a play in the West End, and you’ll be followed at Traf One by Natasha Gordon becoming the first black female playwright when Nine Night transfers. What does this mean for you?
I’m hoping that this is not a flash in the pan, and we can open this door even wider and let the West End know we can put on more diverse work. The fact I’m the second black British playwright to have a play in the West End really upsets me, it’s not good. It’s something that I should be proud of, but I have very mixed feelings about it. I don’t know if I want to celebrate that, instead, I want to say “can you believe this shit?” But that’s where we are, and someone has to be the second.
We’re just trying to push, to use Misty to create change. To give something to the people who might have felt the West End wasn’t for them.
Have you ever felt like the West End wasn’t for you?
Yeah, I didn’t really see a point in coming to see any plays in the West End. It’s because when I had, I found that not only was I never represented on stage, but I also felt that in the audience, there was no one like me. I found that a bit weird. It’s a misrepresentation of London. I walk around and I see lots of different cultures and complexions, accents and languages being spoken and it’s a rich tapestry. It’s this flowing thing that never ends, and then you walk into a theatre, and it’s a one block thing. You think, “hang on, what’s happened here?”
Has that changed with your audiences at Misty?
Yes. It’s different [laughs]. You get a good mix. One of the things young people have said to me most often is they’ll be sat next to an old lady bobbing her head, or a really old man on the other side in tears. Misty is a show where I get to talk to you directly so I look into the audience and there are people in hijabs next to old men sat next to a little boy. What’s not to love about that? To me, that’s utopia.
Photo credit Helen Murray