Theatre Royal Stratford East, 07 May 2011
It comes as little surprise to learn that the The Q Brothers, the group behind ‘Funk it up about nothin’, have previous when it comes to adapting Shakespeare for a modern audience. The show had been a hit at the Edinburgh festival and it’s clear that the cast are much more versatile than the slightly ramshackle approach might initially suggest.
Hidden below the surface is an awful lot of hard graft. Cutting Shakespeare in half and rewriting 95% of the dialogue should not be a task that anyone takes lightly, for no better evidence I point people towards Gnomeo and Juliet. Creating a tightly-written musical score that fits 75-minutes of continuous and fast-paced verse adds a whole another level of difficulty. And a third problem is that by placing it within the context of urban music means the audience you are aiming for will tell instantly whether we are talking genuine Prada or a Rada knock-off.
The choice of Much Ado About Nothing is extremely well-judged. It is very well suited to a hip-hop reimagining. The four leads are all too imaginable in the modern world – the pretty but vapid match of Claudio and Hero undermined all too easily by accusations of ‘being a ho’, while the quick-fire, pithy verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedict seem a natural fit to a world of hip-hop battles and zinging one-line assaults, as thrown out by our nimble MC’s. Updating the play but remaining in verse creates a vivid sense of old and new combining – deep down we know this isn’t Shakespeare but the continually rhymes blended with the odd-line taken from the original works to disorient the audience until we are no longer entirely sure which play a reference to ‘licking the honeypot’ comes from.
While the language has been much updated, the love of Shakespeare and theatre in general, continues to shine through with sly references throughout to, among others, Richard III, Romeo & Juliet and even Bertold Brecht. The Q Brothers have a deep respect for the original and their wish is to make it accessible to a modern audience who may not engage with Shakespeare regularly rather than shoehorning preconceived ideas into any well-known play.
The cast seem to have as little difficulty with the dextrous rhymes as Shakespearan actors have with the original, and succeed notably better than Keanu Reeves effort as a splendidly wooden Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s film. The rhymes are funny and most important delivered with clarity (something that proper music gigs could learn from); given the sheer speed of delivery it is a minor miracle that the complex plot is conveyed to the audience with remarkably few casualties. Just like a theatre-buff had their ego stroked by recognising the references to other plays and theatrical conventions, the production clearly looks to a similar trick for those who came primarily for the music. Even this extremely un-hip reviewer picked up references to Shaft, Beyoncé, Eminem, The Beastie Boys and Slash – and there are almost certainly a dozen more that went straight over my head.
Despite the obvious fun that the cast are having this is a production that is rooted in hard-edged professionalism. Six actors and an on-stage DJ take on all the roles, involving at times costume changes that as rapid-fire as the MCing. It maybe old hat to say that when something looks this fun and easy, it rarely is but I have no doubt a substantial amount of rehearsal and revision has gone into making this production snap. It is because of this that Funk It Up… fully succeeds in its aim of ensnaring their audience in the feel-good factor and by the end even the most cynical of theatre-goers could hardly fail to crack a smile as the cast break into another refrain of the Blaxploitation-styled refrain of ‘Dogberry’.
This is not high Shakespeare as performed by the RSC but then again it has no pretensions to be. Many critics have made a career speculating what Shakespeare would do if alive today but is it that hard to imagine, given his plays attracted everyday people in vast numbers, he might have followed a similar path to The Q Brothers?