Richard II Live! at the Purcell Room
It’s always a bold move to reinvent Shakespeare, even more so when your reinvention focuses upon the modern phenomenon of hip hop. The brainchild of Mobo award-winning rapper Akala (aka the younger brother of Mercury award-winning Ms Dynamite) and championed by Shakespeare veteran Ian McKellen.
The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company has been inspiring teenagers to tease out the connections between hip hop and Shakespeare, finding an affinity with the Bard’s tales that resonates with their own lives. “Rap gets a hard time based on this new school of MCs from America who only rap about tits and arse and jewellery” says Alaka, “but if you look at real hip hop…it’s poetry, it’s social commentary, it’s documenting history.” Akala demonstrates the innate links between the Elizabethan playwright and rap; not only do the modern day rhythms and rhymes mimic Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, universal truths of love, hate, war, greed and jealousy are conjured in the 500-year-old words just as much as today.
Richard II Live! is one of a host of live performances showcasing the work of up-and-coming young talent who have come through the company’s education programme, allowing them to share the stage with well-known actors and artists. Ashley “Bashy” Thomas stars as Richard II, a Brit-school graduate and one of 2012’s Screen International Stars of Tomorrow, and captures the regal entity well with a sombre stoicism. Embalmed in pomposity yet cloaked in aloofness, he transforms into a nervous ball of energy as he descends into madness. Femi Wilhelm lends a vehement ferocity to the Duke of York, fierily thundering out the lines of “this sceptr’d isle” speech in short, sharp gasps.
It’s the play’s fusion with African culture and urban music that really sets it apart from other interpretations. A green, black and yellow Union Jack haunts the stage, while the cast wear African tunics and a decrepit, exotic temple sets the scene. The musicians pick the most striking lines from Shakespeare’s text, lines that bridge centuries, delivering human truths existing universally throughout time. They develop these into short, intricate raps, translating the themes of warfare voracity and envy into colloquialisms that resonate with today’s youth.
It’s not a perfect production, but Askala’s Richard II Live! bursts from the stage with a raw vivacity combining Elizabethan language, African rhythms and urban nuances into a captivating fusion of art.
Richard II Live! is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall’s Purcell Room until 27th March 2014. For further information or to book visit the Southbank Centre’s website here.
Watch a backstage rehearsal of Richard II Live! here: