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Rap's Battle with Theatre


Photos (from left to right) by: Joan Marcus, Marc Brenner, Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.


What do Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, Poet in Da Corner by Debris Stevenson and Jamie Lloyd’s adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac all have in common? Each play incorporates modern rap music.


But why is theatre obsessed with rap? Is it purely that productions want to ride the wave of Hamilton’s success? Since opening in 2015, it’s won 11 Tonys, a Pulitzer prize, and its staggering success and critical acclaim have changed the trajectory of theatre. Or perhaps there’s a less mercantile explanation. It could be that directors are making a concerted effort to reach a wider, more diverse audience.


Many people are familiar with rap musical Hamilton. The story of the eponymous founding father is retold in a production which is also a love letter to American hip-hop and R&B, from Biggie Smalls and Mobb Deep to Beyoncéand Rihanna. It’s a celebration of American history as well as a social commentary on the US’s reliance on immigrants and immigration.


Poet in Da Corner opened at the Royal Court in 2018. The semi-autobiographical story follows a young white dyslexic teenager as she grows up in east London and becomes a grime MC. The title plays on Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 album, Boy in Da Corner, for which the rapper was awarded the Mercury Prize. It’s part musical, part grime concert, featuring a much higher level of audience participation than I or any of the other Saturday matinée theatregoers were expecting. Again, it’s as much about the narrative as the music, which is the vehicle for the storytelling, and Dizzee’s tracks are literally front and centre stage.


But the question of appreciation versus appropriation bubbles below the surface. It explodes into a rap battle between the two lead characters. What right does a white girl have to rap about things she doesn’t understand? Should she be allowed to hijack the only genre in which young black men can express their suffering?


Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, originally performed in French theatres in 1897, has been freely adapted by Martin Crimp and brought to the Playhouse Theatre by director Jamie Lloyd. The play was originally written in alexandrine couplets, which Crimp reinterprets. Gone is the metre, but rhyme is central to the new verse’s rhythm, with internal and end rhymes creating a cacophony of sounds.


In some parts of the play, the poetic verse is gentle and lulling, reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood. But the abrasive and completely fantastic opening act establish that rap is as much an inspiration as any poetic tradition. Standing mics, expensive streetwear and working-class south London accents reveal that the production is looking to the future as well as the past.


I watched this production on a livestream at a cinema. I’ve never been to any performance, live or otherwise, where so many people walked out in the first half. The largely old, white audience in the HMV Curzon had not been expecting this. In the loo at half time, a disgruntled punter complained, ‘Hamilton has a lot to answer for.’ Perhaps French alexandrine couplets would have been preferable to this brash modernism?


Hamiltonand Poet in Da Corner are both celebrations of non-white identity in white majority cultures. Both seek to address theatre’s terrible track record with all-white casting and content and instead create productions which appeal to a diverse audience. Both identify wider issues such as historical representations of people of colour and modern issues of musical cultural appropriation.


Cyrano de Bergerac addresses representation from a different angle. Its casting is just as diverse, and it engages in discussions with cultural appropriation (‘it’s cultural appreciation’ says the loquacious Leila). But by adapting a classic, Cyrano emphasises there’s already plenty of room in the canon for us to have this discussion. Not only that, but I can’t help feeling Cyrano’s defiant message will reach audiences that Hamilton and Poet in Da Corner can’t penetrate. The people who say, ‘Oh no, that kind of things not for me.’


We need productions like Hamilton and Poet in Da Corner. Productions written by non-white writers and actors and directors, which tell their story in their own words and speak directly to minority audiences. But I think we also need more productions like Cyrano. Productions which force this debate unwittingly into the laps of audiences who might otherwise isolate themselves from the conversation in the HMV Curzon toilets.

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