Tackling the performance of a Shakespearean text is never an easy task, but when you're aiming to reinvent such a work musically, you run the risk of biting off more than you can chew. Spearheaded by intellectual rapper Akala, the ‘Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company’ (THSC) has attempted to conquer such a feat, reworking the dramatic narrative of Richard II to a format suited for live music.
Whilst crafted from the same fundamental building blocks of language and performance, the cultural juxtaposition of Hip-Hop and Shakespeare is a jarring prospect. In this clash lays perhaps the greatest strength of this project though; it highlights a great deal of universal truths and recognisable humanity between cultures and eras, despite their superficial differences. In doing so, it helps establish a heightened sense of kinship with our ancestors, bridging the gap in time and casting an interesting new slant on the subject matter.
Featuring a large squad of talented musicians and lyricists, the eager punters that had climbed aboard Bristol’s famous docked boat 'Thekla' had a promising line-up awaiting them. With things underway, it was clear that the show was built from the ground up with a strong musical core that extended past the bespoke songs themselves; the evening’s impressive and varied soundscape switched effortlessly in range between softly atmospheric and narrative-driving prominence.
With a foundation of solid drums, smooth bass and stirring electric guitar, various textures and emotions were applied and explored by the remaining members of the team. Whether the soulful tones of Josh Osho, the lively input of Lady Leshur and Lori-Analytical or the fiery conflicts of Bashy, Malachi Kirby and Young Deacon, it was captivating to watch.
Whilst at times difficult to discern the finer details of the Shakespearean narrative amongst its re-worked guise and the rapid-fire lyrics, it was impossible not to be swept up in the visceral acting, passionate rapping and infectious music that exploded from the stage. With the intensity of the performers so arresting and the music so complimentary to the storytelling, if the larger arc was occasionally lost in translation, the present moment always proved a strong enough event in itself to keep the crowd hooked. Of course, those familiar with Richard II will have hit the ground running, likely finding the imaginative re-working even more enjoyable still.
Often led by Akala, the songs proved an energetic introduction to his live presence and with the room soon repeating chants of, “Power – Take it back!”, they clearly offered a taste of his empowering messages too. The interweaving tones and deliveries of the other vocalists created a great breadth of sound and style, whilst at times the satisfyingly structured, multi-syllabic raps were mesmerising in their hypnotically rhythmic precision.
Concluding with the stand-out track 'Am I King?' and a powerful finale that lasts long in the memory, the evening closed with a warm reception from the happy crowd. This cross-pollination of content and styles produced a superb experience, stirring up a palpable thirst for more that was evident in the excited buzz and chatter of the room post-show.
Whilst entertaining enough in isolation, the cultural impact this tour may leave should elevate its significance further; challenging stereotypes and assumptions whilst ‘edu-taining’ a broad demographic of the intrigued public, Richard II is a fascinating synergy that delivers on a number of levels.
Review + Photography: Darren Paul Thompson
More Info: The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company
Our interview with Akala: CLICK HERE!