Essay: History & Hip-Hop at the 58th Grammy Awards

In time for this year’s Grammys on February 12th, here’s a throwback to last year’s, paying homage to history and politics and hip-hop in the most poignant way.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a black millennial rapper and a musical about America’s white founding fathers would have very few things in common. Kendrick Lamar, born in Compton, California in 1987, and Alexander Hamilton, subject of the musical Hamilton, born in the Caribbean circa 1757, may be centuries apart, but both became a core part of the 58th Grammy Awards, for their wins and winning performances. Lamar won five Grammys, including the coveted ‘Best Rap Album’ for 2015’s Platinum-selling To Pimp a Butterfly. Hamilton, based on Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a cast-of-colour playing America’s predominantly Caucasian political cabinet of the late 18th century, won Best Musical Theatre Album. Yet, there’s something else these figures have in common: both are singing songs of social and political importance.

First up, clear spots shed light and cast shadows on a shuffling chain gang, Lamar their leader, as they slouch and lumber towards a microphone. The shackles and handcuffs clatter and shake, underscoring the sound of smooth sax – the sort of incidental sophistication one might expect to hear while sipping champagne in a smoking lounge – as Lamar raises his manacled hands and takes a moment to arrange them either side of the microphone; a seemingly simple gesture that garners poignancy in the struggle to perform it. His breaths are caught by the microphone, amplified, an aide-mémoire to the life in these convicts no matter now hard the media may try to muzzle them, before the bam-bam of a drumbeat. Here’s the crowning, hear Kendrick’s cry: ‘I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015’.

The jazz interjects, and the lights reveal Lamar’s band behind bars. They too appear part of this chain gang, but these chains don’t need to be corporeal, and perhaps nor does the crime. The double drumbeats continue, and dictate Kendrick’s bars, the dancers, the light beams, and Lamar’s lurch with every line – half flinching in hesitation, half fighting to be heard – as he delivers the opening of ‘The Blacker the Berry’.

Lamar ‘proceed[s] to give [us] what [we] need’ as the prisoners emancipate themselves. The chains come off, then, with the lights down, there’s a beat breakdown and the gang get down, their convict uniforms glowing defiantly in the dark. The drumbeat goes on, but Lamar staggers, dazed, in the darkness, towards a blazing tribal bonfire. This is the spectacle.

Silence. For a second, his voice stands alone, and he speaks to us all: ‘wake up’. Lamar hunches low as he serves up the first verse of ‘Alright’, even stooping to our level to deliver ‘let me tell you ‘bout my life’, a powerful way to confront an audience of white-privilege. When the music comes back in it is soulful and full-bodied, with its African influence not limited to the sound, as drummers and dancers surround Lamar, mixing with the convicts to form a mighty ensemble, and in the midst of the revelry of a united race, you believe them when they say they ‘gon’ be alright!’

But before long, Lamar staggers back to where it’s blacked-out, and the sax feels as though it’s fading out, when he plays his final card – centre stage, spot-lit with eyes shut – an untitled verse that reveals what’s at stake. ‘On February 26th I lost my life too,’ he raps, a reference to the fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 by a member of the community watch, later acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter, and it’s here that there is a stark realisation of the racial politics at play.

The finale, a camera close-up as the rapping speeds up and the shot is cut up, is what Lamar has lead us to, a ‘conversation for the nation, [that] is bigger than us’, that he then silences with the outline of Africa with ‘COMPTON’ stamped across it, as Lamar, a black silhouette, stands alone.

So, from this performance that paints a picture of all that has gone wrong in those supposedly united States, what follows is a performance from Hamilton, a musical about the building of that very nation.

Hamilton, with the opening number broadcast live from the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, tells the history of the United States through rap, hip-hop and R&B. This too opens with a drumbeat, although this one is more military than it is tribal, and accompanied by the sweet screech of violin strings and sporadic clicks from the company, wearing cream deconstructions of colonial dress. The camera pulls out and pans across to capture the actors as they enter and recount Hamilton’s early life in a ‘forgotten spot in the Caribbean’.

The cast may be dressed in the frilly collars and frock coats of the story’s setting, but their characters are colourful, not only literally, as people-of-colour are cast as America’s Caucasian founders, but also as from the mouths of these historic heroes springs the music of today: raps spoken over dark hanging chords with all the swagger of Kendrick.

The man himself, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has his moment in the spotlight, centre stage, too, and the company list his hardships. His father ‘splits’, ‘his mother went quick’, the last word a lingering whisper, haunting the scene as a woman is lifted, lifeless, to represent her passing, and, without skipping a beat, a man on a chair mimes winding a rope around his neck – Hamilton’s cousin committing suicide.

A phoenix rising from the ashes, like Lamar’s rebirth around his bonfire, Hamilton writes ‘his first refrain [as] a testament to his pain’, a creative process that recalls the origins of rap, where artists seek to write their way out of their circumstances. Off to New York to be a new man, Hamilton ascends to the set’s balcony, a bare, wooden structure controlled by the company, as the central narrator, identity yet unknown, resumes a quick spit of rapped rhymes.

The company line downstage, another collective-of-colour like Kendrick’s convicts, and are illustrative of, as Miranda has had to explain exhaustively in media interviews, a story of America then told by America now. And America now is where we are, as Hamilton descends the lowered steps as if coming ashore as the company sings, ‘the world will never be the same’.

The composition shares more than just style with hip-hop. Lines like ‘another immigrant coming up from the bottom’ echo the braggadocio not only of ‘The Blacker the Berry’s’ ‘came from the bottom of mankind’, but also of other artists, like Jay Z’s justified boasts in ‘Otis’ that his and fellow rappers’ achievements as African Americans are ‘not bad, huh, for some immigrants’.

As with Lamar’s performance, the finale gathers speed and sound, as spots individually illuminate the cast of supporting characters, a company who ‘fought for him’, ‘died for him’, ‘trusted him’, ‘loved him’, and, in a tragic reflection of the black cause that Kendrick centres on, the nameless narrator is revealed to be Aaron Burr, ‘the damn fool that shot him’. Yet, once again, the sounds fall to silence, as the voices stand alone to sing the final line: ‘Alexander Hamilton’.

No longer seeming styles and centuries apart, the performances of Hamilton and Lamar point to matters of social and political importance through a popular shared medium: the power of music. But not just any music; this is the music of struggle, of skill, and of voices usually silenced. So let’s start listening.

Essay: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber & The Uncanny – An Applied Analysis

bloody-chamber-blogThe stories in Angela Carter’s short-story collection The Bloody Chamber belong to ‘that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’[1]. These words, however, are not from a critic of Carter’s but from the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud in his essay ‘The Uncanny’; yet how strangely they seem to mirror the figures that cast the ominous shadows of Carter’s stories. Whilst Carter and her champions continue to assert that these are ‘new stories, not retellings’[2], all of the stories interlace and elucidate threads from fairy-tales and folklore, from Beauty and the Beast to Puss in Boots, and they inevitably, as Freud informs us of the Uncanny, lead us back to something once familiar: the fairy-tales of our infanthood. This study will centre on the three werewolf tales that close the collection and ‘work and rework the story of Red Riding Hood’[3], ‘The Werewolf’, ‘The Company of Wolves’, and ‘Wolf-Alice’[4], and apply Freud’s Uncanny as a theory of analysis to illuminate the dark shadows and dangerous spaces of Carter’s stories. Continue reading “Essay: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber & The Uncanny – An Applied Analysis”

Review: Horatio Clare – A Writer in Conversation

A writer in conversation, in education, in intrepidation, and in adoration of his subject: the hauntings, hazards, and surprising humility of seafaring

down-to-sea-shipsWhen assigned a nonfiction book about shipping, I’ll admit I was a little sceptical and somewhat uninspired by the subject. Yet, Down to the Sea in Ships, the true story of Clare as a writer-in-residence aboard a container ship, is a work that quickly steers us past the decks to be scrubbed and engines to be oiled, but crucially without forgetting those practicalities, and dives into the hauntings, hazards, and surprising humility of seafaring.

Clare writes in Down to the Sea in Ships that ‘ships are models of their times in miniature’, and his talk captured that microcosmic sentiment, sat beneath the spotlights like sailors beneath the stars, listening to a storyteller tell stories of other storytellers. The book seems much like the man: truthful but deeply touching, candid but never damning, and alive with the voices of many a man. For life at sea, like life on land, is more about the man than it is the machine. His readings from the book were accompanied by accents that made characters likely far away at sea in an ocean of unimaginable immensity feel as though they were right there in the room, something to be revered despite Clare’s somewhat self-deprecating response when complimented.

A favourite character that came to life in his reading was John the Geordie. A figure that reminded me so much of one of my own grandparents, everything from the slightly bended knee stance for ‘stability’ on deck, to his preferred soundtrack of Queen and Dire Straits: his horror stories sprung from the page in Clare’s North-East-accented delivery with such vivacity it was hard not to revel in them with him. And it is these small details, however trivial they may seem in a book about shipping, that bring both the book and his talk to life, and I can only think it would be a very different tale without them, even if a departure from what I might have considered traditional travel writing.

Clare is specific: something he is questioned about but attributes to the diary-like logging of his experience. These men, ‘remarkable’ and ‘monumental’ though they are, are not sentimentalists, but Romantics, and he beautifully illustrates this with the image of a sailor with swallow tattoos on each shoulder, there to carry his soul home should he die at sea. This is something else Clare makes sure not to forget: the fragility of life. Men who aren’t friends are forced together for months without their families, before moving on to the next container with a new crew, a new captain, and a new cabin to live in in order to sustain life on land. The speed with which they must settle into each new voyage is demonstrated by Clare’s own adoption of seafaring superstitions, as he remembers once catching himself whistling and hastily turning it into a hum, and then hearing someone else whistle and being sure his own demise were on the horizon.

Clare is persuasive in his opinion that it is not that the sea has no memory, but that it is all memory, and its depths are there to be discovered, like the empty bars aboard now that the ships are dry. Through his work and words, he has turned the tide of my uncertainty. After his Conversation, the waves have washed away the last traces of scepticism in the sand, and, with his insight, brought ashore intrigue and inspiration. This wasn’t only a writer in conversation, but a writer in education, in intrepidation, and in adoration of his subject: oceans so deep you’ll need more than ships to discover them, but Clare’s words will let you set sail.

Written in early 2016 after a Writers in Conversation event at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, I just didn’t want all the shipping puns to be lost at sea (sorry) and hopefully it’ll let others discover his wonderful work.

Review: Film, Form & a Female Hamlet – Manchester’s Royal Exchange Hamlet (2014)

hamlet-blog

Giants of stage and screen frame an aggressively bold and capitalised pre-recorded HAMLET, but at what cost to live performance?

To screen, or not to screen: is that the question we must now ask of live theatre?Manchester Royal Exchange’s latest production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is forging a new form, that of recorded theatre, as it’s screened to cinemas this spring after first being filmed at the end of its Autumn 2014 run. But coupled with another formal infidelity – a female Hamlet in the form of a fearless Maxine Peake – is the effect as fresh as Ophelia’s open grave or as chap-fallen as poor Yorick?

Taking its cue from NT Live, ROH Live, and Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon, the production sits astride the stage-screen dichotomy with pride: presented on admission with a program-of-sorts, it gives Maxine Peake top billing above the Bard. These tropes of stage and screen sandwich an aggressively bold and capitalised ‘HAMLET’; an image that, in itself, is a somewhat accurate abridgement of the viewing experience.

Firstly, Peake’s Hamlet is refreshingly fearless for the infamous man of inaction. From a scene of unashamed sexuality in which the book Hamlet carries, the image of the thinker, is subverted to symbolise the crude doings of a phallus, to one of agonisingly ironic innocence as she is cradled by Gertrude, crying like a child, after fatally shooting Polonius, Peake is unafraid to force her Hamlet to every extreme, and the audience follows her with fervour. The scene with Katie West’s doe-eyed Ophelia is a tour de force of her dynamism, a sweet coquettishness crushed under the sole of Peake’s stamped foot as she spits, ‘you should not have believed me!’. The forcefulness of her approach is not without flaw, as some moments stray from bravely going where no Hamlet has gone before to an erratic charade of bellowing and raspberry blowing, but even this, when performed with such vigour, seems to suggest something new and masquerade-like about Hamlet’s madness. So while Hamlet himself may cry ‘frailty, thy name is woman!’, Peake’s performance is its very antithesis.

The same is not true of Polonius’s gender reversal. Transformed into Gillian Bevan’s appositely pathetic Polonia, the portrayal is slapped with the same problem as Prospero being female in Julie Taymor’s 2006 Tempest: the added maternity is a motherly betrayal and Ophelia appears to be offered up as bait for Hamlet to bite. Perhaps an unwelcome expectation, but practitioners of new theatrical forms must be aware of what other performances, of gender or otherwise, an audience is accustomed to and likely to be accompanied by in the auditorium. And this isn’t a new, politically correct nuisance, even Shakespeare and his contemporaries had to be aware of the expectation for cuckolded husbands to be forcibly chastened in public parades.

The refreshing freedom of playing with form isn’t confined to gender reversal. As a new form, recorded theatre has to offer something new to the performance, and here it is the subtle portrayal of Hamlet’s inaction in two particular scenes. The first, shot from a low angle, has Hamlet looming silent and still in the far ground as Claudius prays in the foreground. The second, in the following scene, frames Hamlet in the foreground, but is shot from behind, revealing the gun to the screen audience while it remains hidden from Gertrude. Although perhaps lost on the in-the-round live audience, Williams’s use of that Hitchcockian suspense-cinema hallmark builds tension until Hamlet finally acts and   shoots Polonius. These moments are refreshing because they demonstrate the success of the new form as a marriage of stage director Sarah Frankcom’s staging and screen director Margaret Williams’s shot framing.

The piece plays with form in every aspect, even moving the ever-famous ‘to be or not be’ soliloquy to be a second-act opener, and is perhaps capitalising on the none too solid – or should that be sullied? – flesh of Hamlet’s textual form as it exists in varying Quarto and Folio versions, but to what effect? At times it is profitable, as in Peake’s female Hamlet and the dual-rolling of the Ghost and Claudius, the latter not only taking advantage of John Shrapnel’s skill, but allowing lighting design a part in the storytelling, characterising the former by the softness of Lee Curran’s suspended light bulbs and the latter with stark white spots and squares. Yet, sometimes it embezzles us, the audience paying the £13.50 admission price to see a piece of recorded theatre, out of the experience; often it was impossible to discern a low rumble from the effect of subtle textural sound-scaping in the hanging notes and haunting swells of Alex Baranowski’s score or from the reverberations of an action film next door in screen nine. Although this is not the fault of either stage nor screen director, it was, apologetically, part of the experience paid for.

The Royal Exchange’s Hamlet was a bold and aggressive capitalising on all that is great about theatre and cinema, but has the essence of live theatre forever lost its top billing to film? Or is this just theatre arming itself against its own sea of ticket-selling troubles? Theatre as we know it, with its roots in the Early Modern playhouses of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, was a distinctly commercial form in the same way we think of today’s cinema, and so perhaps the question is not to screen or not to screen, as the answer is inevitably yes, but to see or not to see: it’s going to be there anyway.

March 23rd 2015, cast includes Maxine Peake, John Shrapnel & Katie West, click picture for link to production site★★★½