Rap is perhaps not the first medium that comes to mind when faced with the challenge of making centuries-old literature and history accessible to 21st century audiences, but the meteoric rise of Hamilton across the Atlantic and the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company here in the UK prove that using the genre to that end is both possible and necessary.
Last week, the latter’s adaptation of Richard II, directed by BAFTA and MOBO Award-winning artist Akala, came to Oxford’s O2 Academy. In many respects, the update was effortless – Mowbray and Bolingbroke’s confrontation in the opening scenes lends itself perfectly to a rap battle, and the ways in which different figures communicated revealed something about their characters. Bolingbroke raps, as do other nobles involved in his rebellion; Richard himself insists on delivering his soliloquies straight as he clings to the divine right of kings, a concept that feels increasingly tenuous and outmoded as the show progresses.
The songs clarify the meaning behind the Bard’s often intimidating early modern language, but by choosing individual lines as their basis and then extrapolating from there, the production runs the risk of losing some of the nuances of the original story. This Richard, a decisive, deliberate tyrant, is a far cry from Shakespeare’s impulsive, ineffectual king, and the deposition scene is notably absent. As a work in its own right, however, it is a compelling one. And as Akala asserts, “It’s not about lowering quality – that’s patronising, young people see through that. It’s about demystifying Shakespeare.”
In this respect, THSC’s efforts are a great success. In emphasising the links between Shakespeare and modern hip-hop both rhythmically and thematically, Akala shows his audience that the greatest writer in the canon is intended for everyone, not just the academic elite. “Over 90 percent of Shakespeare’s audience couldn’t read or write,” he pointed out in a recent TEDx talk. “How is it, then, that in the 21st century, in Britain, he’s come to be viewed as almost a poster child for elitism?” Framing Shakespeare as analogous to contemporary artists gives hip-hop the credit it deserves as an art form and explodes the idea of the legendary playwright as belonging exclusively to any one demographic – and does so in an eminently entertaining way.