The West Yorkshire Playhouse is renowned for developing new talent and giving artists across the region a wide variety of opportunities. One of the ways they do this is through their Furnace initiative, where new work is given a home within the theatre’s walls and is nurtured by a team of professionals. On the bill for this season of shows is Leeds-based rapper and beatboxer Testament, aka Andy Brooks, and his new show Blake Remixed. Cosily housed in the Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d be faced with when I took my seat.
Blake Remixed is essentially a rehashing of events of Brooks’ life, where he and DJ Woody take us on a coming-of-age journey with a difference. At school, Brooks discovered a love of the poetry of William Blake, and began to get into rap and hip-hop. He connected with the music and began to use it as an outlet for his creativity, and several years later, went on a journey to bring hip-hop to adolescents in prison in an attempt to rehabilitate them. However, in this theatrical production, Brooks fuses his story with Blake’s Four Zoas, who each teach him important life lessons that he has carried with him throughout his career.
Now, I must admit that I’m really not into hip-hop (I’m more country/rock/indie/folk myself), so with that in mind, I wouldn’t really call this show my cup of tea. However, I did find several aspects of the show interesting: the use of live projections of scenery and the Four Zoas helped create a much larger world for Brooks to play around with, and his live beatboxing is definitely pretty cool. He creates a wide variety of sounds that help flesh out the world of the production and generally link it right back to the heart of human values that he learns throughout his journey. DJ Woody also intervenes throughout and manipulates the projections and music with his turntables, which gives the show a unique kind of raw, live energy that Brooks seems to feed off throughout.
A lack of scenery assists us in focusing on Brooks’ story, but this is where some of the problems come in. A little bit of the exposition seems a tad clunky, and sometimes, I wasn’t quite sure what characters Brooks was assuming throughout – in one scene, he goes directly from discussing his rehab performers and their aspirations to perform, and then goes into another where he gets up on stage and performs alongside a well-respected rapper. This sudden change in scenery and a lack of changes in physicality made it a bit tough for me to distinguish what characters Brooks portrayed at several points throughout.
Another problem I had was with the Four Zoas themselves – the sound was so loud at times that some of their lines became slightly distorted and difficult to hear, and I was beginning to get a bit confused as to what their purpose at certain points of the story actually was.
In spite of these little problems, Brooks’ Blake Remixed is certainly an interesting show. If you’re massively into your hip-hop, this is certainly worth seeing, but if you’re not, there’s nothing too spectacular happening here. However, if you’re up for a light bit of storytelling with some cool theatrical aspects, this could be for you.
Blake Remixed played the West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of Furnace Festival. For more information, see the West Yorkshire Playhouse website. Photo by Richard Davenport.