Katy Guest: Young, gifted and big fans of Sonnet 18

The Week In Books

Friday 27 February 2009 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Two years before making his serious stage debut as Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Lenny Henry summed up his attitude to Shakespeare. "It seemed to me that Shakespeare was very much in the province of posh people," he said on a Radio 4 series about the Bard. "I'm black, I'm from Dudley, I'm working class. Shakespeare's not for people like us."

Some years ago at a somewhat posh literature festival in the provinces I heard the then artistic director of the Playhouse, Jude Kelly, explaining what she understood by the phrase People Like Us. "Us", she explained in a put-on, posh-provincial accent, are the people who are supposed to go to the theatre and read Literature and attend books festivals in grand marquees in southern England. Whereas "Uz", she said in proper Yorkshire, are the people the Playhouse wanted to welcome. This new Othello, in regional accents, by the director Barrie Rutter and the Halifax-based company Northern Broadsides, could make Lenny Henry the first famous Dudley Moor. It also fulfils Kelly's remit of persuading People Like Uz into theatres – even if they are only on the stage.

The other day I had the chance to talk to the actor and author Ben Crystal about Lenny, Willy and PLU, and unsurprisingly he agreed that Shakespeare is for people exactly like Uz. In his latest book, Shakespeare on Toast, Crystal tries his damnedest as an actor, scholar and Shakespeare's biggest fan to demystify the Bard for doubting 21st-century theatre-phobics. Crystal is a fine actor and not exactly quintessentially highbrow, and his enthusiastic comparisons of Shakespeare's Globe to "a modern football match" and his plays to "Elizabethan soap opera" will have shocked those among Us who want to keep the riff raff out of the stalls.

They are fighting a losing battle, if they do. A week ago, Ben Crystal joined a mixed bunch of guests (Sir Ian McKellen, Ms Dynamite, the Booker Prize-winning writer Ben Okri...) at the Limehouse Youth Centre in East London to launch a project called Hip Hop Shakespeare, lead by the Mobo-winning artist Akala. The workshops were spawned by BBC Blast, whose tours saw some schools lying to students about what they were really going to see, so unpopular was the idea of poetry to the yoof.

Akala broke the ice by reading out a selection of quotes, and asking his audience to guess which were Shakespeare, and which hip hop. Not everybody got it right; Sir Ian was certain that "I am reckless what I do/ To spite the world" was a hip hop lyric. (It is from Macbeth: "I am one, my liege,/ Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world/ Hath so incensed that I am reckless what I do/ To spite the world.") Before long, a group of youngsters who are - in that dread acronym - Not in Employment, Education or Training, were rapping Sonnet 18. "They realise that if Shakespeare is attainable to them then how can a job not be attainable, how can anything not be?" Akala told me. "Because Shakespeare is the most unattainable thing they can think of. So we've started way out there." One young woman, Lorianne, who attended earlier sessions, has been commissioned to write a play for the Young Vic.

Over at the 100 year-old Poetry Society, the embracing of young poets is continuing with reckless abandon. Next week they launch the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award, at the Sage Gateshead – and previous form suggests that a torrent of junior bards waits to be unleashed. One of last year's winners, "I Talk Lyk Dis" by Chinedum Nwokonkor, is a witty, blunt and incisive answer to anyone who still thinks that poetry and language is not for the entertainment of "a boi from da street".

You heard it here first: the new Bard will be black, working-class and possibly even from Dudley. But maybe not an ageing comic. Says Lorianne: "Shakespeare would have been a rapper."

P.S.In an updated version of a popular literary parlour game, the organisers of next week's World Book Day are inviting readers to confess their Guilty Secrets. Not the kind that would form the basis of a thinly-disguised roman-a-clef, but ones concerning books they secretly read – and books they never have. As described in David Lodge's Changing Places, participants in the game must name a book they have never read, and score a point for each of the other players who has. The survey at www.spread-the-word.org.uk goes further, asking readers whether they have ever written in a library book, turned over pages or read the last page first. Seriously, never having read The Satanic Verses can be forgiven – Salman Rushdie's (left) 29-year-old son, Zafar, only got round to it a month ago, he admitted. But wanting to know the ending first? That's just weird.

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