Hip-hop might be the most popular musical genre in the world, but it isn’t something usually paired with eighteenth century gothic literature. With that said, Battersea Arts Centre’s Frankenstein: How to Make A Monster, might be the first hip-hop inspired adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein told through the mediums of beatboxing, rap and singing to hit the stage. Six performers with six microphones perform a modern retelling of the Shelly classic, updated to incorporate themes such as social media troubles, cyberbullying and youthful uncertainty.
It’s quirky, but it works wonderfully. Witnessing this adaptation, it comes across as a superbly relevant addition to the pantheon of great classical literature interpretations. It’s certainly nowhere near as chilling as the 1931 film version starring the iconic Boris Karloff or even as sinister as the 2011 National Theatre adaptation featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. However, through its unique medium, it manages to faithfully examine Shelley’s themes surrounding creation, abandonment, morality, and scientific ethics, all while placing it within a modern inner-city youthful and diverse London context.
The beatboxing adds a beautifully malleable aspect to the stage that distinguishes the BAC’s adaptation from other stage plays. All the cast are skilled beatboxers, able to replicate intricate drum patterns, whistles and deep basslines in one moment and then harmonise with smooth haunting vocals. The sounds are unpredictable and leave the audience in constant surprise at how such a talented youthful cast could create such a tremendously layered soundscape. Frankenstein: How to Make A Monster is a triumphant and interactive revision to the classic, that ends up standing tall.
Frankenstein: How to Make A Monster is hosted by the Battersea Arts Centre and BAC Beatbox Academy and is directed by David Cumming and Conrad Murray. David is a professional actor, theatre-maker and musician, who co-directs his award-winning comedy theatre company Kill the Beast. Conrad has been leading the BAC Beatbox Academy for 10 years and is an actor, writer, director, rapper and beatboxer.
Frankenstein: How to Make A Monster cast features Aminita (Aminita Francis), Glitch (Nadine Rose Johnson), Wiz-Rd (Tyler Worthington), Native (Nathanial Forder-Staple), ABH (ABH Beatbox) and Grove (Beth Griffin).
Yesterday I caught up with David and Conrad to discuss the play, classic literature and which rappers they think are as good as Mary Shelley.
What can we expect from your show?
Conrad Murray: An experience that is something like a gig, but with a sense of drama., but somewhere in the middle. An hour of incredible beats and music.
David Cumming: A rush of blood to the head, a pound of beats to the feet and a punch of emotion to the gut. It’s like a live concept-album with movement, music, lights and lyrics that somehow takes you on a rave through the story of Frankenstein.
What attracted you both on a personal level to the Frankenstein story?
Conrad: For me, it was partly the fact it was 200 years old. Plus, the book itself asks a lot of questions about science and technology, which is what we do with the show at times, with songs such as ‘Click click, clack’.
David: I think for me it was the idea of the Monster as the eternal outsider that really resonated with me. The interplay between the power and powerlessness that comes from being outside of normal society. As a queer, mixed-race Northerner living in London I feel highly connected to certain sub-cultures but then entirely excluded from most conventional ones. It’s a strange position to be in.
It has been 201 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Why reinterpret it as a musical and through beatbox specifically?
Conrad: Beatbox performance is what we do, so there would be no other way for us. It seemed like a good time, and a story that is recognisable, but not a lot of people are familiar with.
David: I also think there is a really interesting parallel between Mary Shelley and the members of the Beatbox Academy. Shelley was only 18 when she wrote Frankenstein and yet her Gothic novel (a relatively new medium at the time) brims with some of the most politically, scientifically and philosophically revolutionary ideas of her time. So why not give today’s youth the chance to do the same, using their own culture’s art-form in ways it hasn’t been used before?
Frankenstein is above all things, a piece of work that asks you to examine who is the real monster: the monster itself, or Dr Frankenstein, the creator of the monster. As you have a youthful cast, who or what are the 21st Century monsters that affect young people?
Conrad: That would be giving too much away! I think you have to see the show to answer that question. I think that a lot of young people feel like they are being made to look like monsters, the way that the media portrays them.
David: Yeah, you need to come see the show to find out properly, but I think we don’t often give credit to the hostility a lot of young people feel from the world around them, the world we created for them. The power of social media and the internet, the rise of the alt-right, climate change — it’s hard enough trying to process all that negativity as an adult, never mind as a teenager trying to work out their own future.
Have people responded well to the blending of a classic story and hip hop? Did you receive any elitist pushback, for example?
Conrad: People have LOVED it. We have re-acquainted them with an old friend — but this time it is related. We even performed at an official Mary Shelly fan club event, so, so far so good.
David: Yeah, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I don’t know if it counts as elitist pushback, but I think some people are shocked at the depth of the show and how it examines the themes of Shelley’s novel in a modern context. Perhaps they didn’t think beatboxers would be able to handle such weighty subject matter? I dunno. Either way, we proved them wrong!
Did you face any challenges in presenting a hip-hop inspired story in theatre? Although there have been a few musicals or plays that have incorporated hip-hop, it isn’t necessarily a popular format.
Conrad: I personally don’t worry about the challenges. I have been creating hip hop theatre for over ten years and the Beatbox Academy has been going for around ten years, and we have been out here. I could have given up and gone down a safer more traditional route, but I’m about the culture.
David: I think there is still work to be done in terms of the perception of who a piece of hip-hop theatre is for. Some people may look at the phrase ‘beatbox theatre’ and think ‘Oh, that’s not for me. I’m not part of that culture.’ But that is exactly what we are trying to disprove with this show. If you like music (and frankly which sane person doesn’t like music??) then there is no reason this show wouldn’t be for you.
Conrad: I feel like finally people are listening to what we are doing. The results have been impressive, and we already have big partners in place for the future of the show, so people are definitely interested.
Would you consider adapting any other works of classic literature? Which classic story would lend itself to a hip-hop inspired retelling?
Conrad: I have already made a beatbox/hip hop one man show which incorporated Shakespeare’s Hamlet. That was a success and was one of the inspirations for using a classic piece of literature for this story. I’ve recently been playing with the idea of a beatbox version of 1984, and toyed around with it, with hip hop group 5 mics and some Mountview students. I’m mulling it over. Orwell is the man.
David: I think there is so much potential for epic-ness in hip-hop — the growling bass, the deep dark beats, the soaring melodies — that I reckon we should take it proper old-school and go back to Ancient Greece. I’d love to see a hip-hop version of The Odyssey.
Hip hop at its heart is storytelling. Would you say that any rappers (US or UK) have reached a level where their storytelling is comparable with iconic writers such as Shelley?
Conrad: Yes, Jay Z and Nas are definitely comparable. Lots of double entendres and metaphors. The visuals in their writing are next level.
David: I always thought that Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future were really good at taking the listener on a well-crafted, dark (and sometimes twisted) journey, like they really considered the tone of what they were saying and the ebb and flow of the story. But whether they will be as iconic as Shelley — only time will tell!
Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster
Battersea Arts Centre and BAC Beatbox Academy
Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, SW11 5TN
Date: 12 – 29 Mar 2019
Price: £15 — £26
Booking Link: bac.org.uk/frankenstein
Box Office: 020 7223 2223