Inspirational AF: Akala

I went to see Akala speak about two weeks ago, having long admired him from afar. He spoke and answered questions on ‘Is Britain Having an Identity Crisis?’ for two hours with an mind-boggling level of eloquence and thoughtfulness, at the same time as being incredibly relatable and human.

You don’t need to watch all the above, but watch at least a little to get a sense of Akala’s level of knowledge – and to learn something new about Britain’s history and politics.

Also, a bonus vid below – Akala is also a legend because he loves Shakespeare. See below for his amazing rap paying tribute to the Bard. I always love a Shakespeare-lover.

Inspirational AF: Dancing with a Tea Cup

How do they do it?! This is taken from DV8‘s Can We Talk About This?, a physical theatre production looking at freedom of speech, multiculturalism, and Islam, using verbatim interviews and elements of dance and mime. The physical strength of the performers, and the mental strength of this interviewee, Ann Cryer (the first politician to raise issues of forced marriage in the Houses of Parliament) are both inspirational AF. 

Check out more of DV8’s amazing, political, exciting work here.

“Music oft hath such a charm / To make bad good and good provoke to harm”

Measure for Measure, Act 4, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

That theatre is often supposed to make you uncomfortable is a received view. blog 6Yet it feels to me like playwrights and directors increasingly use extreme violence, swearing and sex as almost shortcuts to achieving this effect on their audience. Perhaps this is partly a result of my seeing student theatrics increasingly coming with ‘trigger warnings’ (I saw a brilliantly-acted, but gruesomely graphic production of Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur a few weeks ago), but one need only think of the furore surrounding the National Theatre’s Cleansed (Sarah Kane) or Jamie Lloyd’s visceral productions of Macbeth or Richard III to see this trend of explicit gore.

Dominic Cooke’s revival of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre does indeed include violence, sex, and swearing; but what makes the production so brilliant, and actually so important to see, is that this isn’t what made me squirm in my seat. Rather, it is the powerful rendering of black African-American life in the 1920s that makes a white, middle-class, privileged viewer like myself uneasy.

blogThose more experienced theatre viewers than myself will have to bear with here; I’d never seen an August Wilson play before, or, to my shame, even heard of the playwright before this. In fact, I am embarrassingly ill-educated about BME playwrights in general, something I’ll definitely be making an effort to rectify.

For those of you, like me, who also know little about the play, here’s a quick summary: in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, four band members rehearse and talk (and argue!) whilst waiting for the ‘Mother of Blues’, Ma Rainey to arrive. The play takes place just before, and during this recording session, as we are introduced not only to Ma herself, or rather Madam, as the diva likes to be known, but also these four musicians; Cutler, the leader; Toledo, the intellectual of the group; Slow Drag, the quieter, superstitious bass player; and Levee, the loud, wildly unstable trumpet player, desperate to become a big jazz star in his own right.

It was O.T. Fagbenle in this latter role who was really the star of the production, blog 4every moment a performance, whether he was checking himself out in the locker mirrors, or stammering and stuttering over his lines, or dancing around the rather cramped area of the stage to which the musicians were confined for a large amount of the action.

I thought this staging worked pretty well; with the recording studio taking over the whole of the Lyttelton stage, the white characters of the managers and recording executives symbolically placed ‘above’ in the sound booth, and the band’s thin slice of a rehearsal room, where most of the action takes place, rising out of the floor at the front of the stage. Its thinness provided an important sense of claustrophobia, as the drama heightened throughout the course of the show.

blog 2A lot of this drama, and particularly the ‘back-story sections’ which – to sound old-fartish – I have grown to loathe in modern drama, only works so well because of the superb acting from the cast. With ‘back-story sections’ I mean those moments when a character suddenly launches into a long epistle about their past, explaining their entire character and motives for action in one dramatic monologue; it feels to me like these are just psychiatrist couch outpourings which are an easy way for a playwright to get out of having to tell a character’s mind through subtler mannerisms and oddly placed words. There were quite a few of these long speeches in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and yet the actors, particularly Fagbenle and the excellent Lucian Msmati as Toledo, managed to make them seem spontaneous enough that they didn’t jar too much in the course of the action. Giles Terera (Slow Drag) and Clint Dyer (Cutler), meanwhile, managed to create a strong sense of the bond between their two characters, without so much of the storytelling. I was especially impressed by the musicianship of all four actors; although there is actually less music than you would think from a play set in a recording studio.blog 5

Luckily, we do get to hear some of Sharon D Clarke’s smooth vocals as Ma Rainey. Clarke inhabits this central role totally, portraying both the extreme diva and her reasons for being so demanding. Finbar Lynch as Irvin, Ma’s manager who maintains constantly that he can “sort it”, was excellently efficacious, and I also liked Tunji Lucas as the shy, stuttering Sylvester, Ma Rainey’s nephew.

In fact, the only real problem I had with the performance I went to see was the audience. Perhaps it was a result of being at a weekday matinee, but it felt as though the largely white, elderly audience was self-congratulatory. The setting of the play in both the past, and another country, seemed to allow them to distance themselves from any blame, with even some outright laughter being heard during the final, most distressing climax. There was blog 3also laughter during Slyvester’s stuttering: “Oh, don’t make him do it” was heard through titters. I’m aware that this may sound typically-critic-like, as if no one quite understands the play as well as I do. Yet the outright laughter just really irritated me, when such important issues – which are still relevant – were being raised.

The National Theatre have combined with playwright Kwame Kwei-Amah to create the Black Plays Archive, a website providing information and digital resources addressing the contribution of African, Caribbean and black British playwrights to British theatre. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an excellent revival, worth seeing for the acting alone, but made more important because of its message. My hope is that its success will not only impact the thoughts of those seeing it, but also encourage Rufus Norris and his team to put on more BME works in the future – particularly contemporary British ones, so that it is not quite so easy for an audience to distance themselves from guilt by means of accent or dress.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

“The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds…Let no such man be trusted.”

The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

Lucky me, I went to see ‘Kiss Me Kate’ at the Old Vic Theatre yesterday, which is a musical based on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, with music written by Cole Porter. This production is directed by Trevor Nunn and is well worth going to see. However, if you simply like musicals for the songs, this has some good numbers, but most impressive and probably the most enjoyable sections are the dance sequences. Nevertheless….naturally, this song caught my attention 😉 So I thought I’d post the lyrics up for you:

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

The girls today in society go for classical poetry
So to win their hearts one must quote with ease
Aeschylus and Euripides
One must know Homer, and believe me, Beau
Sophocles, also Sappho-ho
Unless you know Shelley and Keats and Pope
Dainty Debbies will call you a dope

But the poet of them all
Who will start ’em simply ravin’
Is the poet people call
The Bard of Stratford on Avon

{Refrain}
Brush up your Shakespeare
Start quoting him now
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow

Just declaim a few lines from Othella
And they’ll think you’re a hell of a fella
If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ‘er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopatterer

If she fights when her clothes you are mussing
What are clothes?  Much ado about nussing
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they’ll all kow-tow

{Refrain}

With the wife of the British ambessida
Try a crack out of Troilus and Cressida
If she says she won’t buy it or tike it
Make her tike it, what’s more As You Like It

If she says your behavior is heinous
Kick her right in the Coriolanus
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they’ll all kow-tow

{Refrain}

If you can’t be a ham and do Hamlet
They will not give a damn or a damlet
Just recite an occasional sonnet
And your lap’ll have honey upon it

When your baby is pleading for pleasure
Let her sample your Measure for Measure
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they’ll all kow-tow – Forsooth
And they’ll all kow-tow – I’ faith
And they’ll all kow-tow

{Refrain}

Better mention “The Merchant Of Venice”
When her sweet pound o’ flesh you would menace
If her virtue, at first, she defends—well
Just remind her that “All’s Well That Ends Well”

And if still she won’t give you a bonus
You know what Venus got from Adonis
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they’ll all kow-tow – Thinkst thou?
And they’ll all kow-tow – Odds bodkins
And they’ll all kow-tow

{Refrain}

If your goil is a Washington Heights dream
Treat the kid to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
If she then wants an all-by-herself night
Let her rest ev’ry ‘leventh or “Twelfth Night”

If because of your heat she gets huffy
Simply play on and “Lay on, Macduffy!”
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they’ll all kow-tow – Forsooth
And they’ll all kow-tow – Thinkst thou?
And they’ll all kow-tow – We trou’
And they’ll all kow-tow

Wish I could find a YouTube video of the current production, but this’ll have to do:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4PPO70as0g

Anyway, I’ll post again soon, as I went to see the critically-aclaimed ‘Twelfth Night’ starring Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry on Thursday, and I have much to say about it! 🙂

Thanks for reading!