Friday, October 2, 2009

Reviews: Sketch the Rhyme; Orpheus in the Underworld


I like to think of these Fringe reviews I’m writing as the critical equivalent of freestyle rapping. Not that they’re particularly cool or whatever the cool word for cool is among freestylers; more that I’m writing them really fast and on the fly and without, you know, editing or proper attention to grammar or the ability to go back and revise something after I’ve written it. I suppose I could do that actually but unlike freestylers I am very lazy.

Freestyle rap is a stream of hip-hop that’s a very distinct culture in itself. Most recorded hip-hop artists can’t freestyle very well, in the same way that a lot of outstanding actors can’t do impro. The art is all about creating sophisticated rhymes in the moment – one of the biggest insults you can offer a freestyler is to imply that one of their snaps was thought up earlier. It’s incredibly impressive to hear some of the stuff the better rappers can come up with, though there’s clearly a place for people who sit down and write a well-crafted song in advance, too. They’re two different cultures, really, and an important component of freestyle is definitely the live performance and the response of the crowd, whose approval or rejection is what ultimately decides the result of the battle.

A great intro is the doco Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube I think.

The Sketch the Rhyme crew extend the freestyle aesthetic in unexpected directions. A bunch of artists create sketches live in front of you from ideas suggested by the audience (their workbench is monitored by a camera that projects the drawings onto a big screen as they occur). Meanwhile a sizeable number of rappers improvise rhymes riffing on the scenes that appear on the screen and a live band lay down improvised tunes to support it all. There’s a lot of information coming at the audience simultaneously, obviously. That’s the show’s real strength – at times you can forget that this is all off-the-cuff since you’re following a live artwork creation accompanied by music and commentary. There’s an element of friendly competition between the performers, too.

It’s hampered a bit by the usual constraints of impro (cf. theatresports) where the transient nature of the thing doesn’t really leave a lasting imprint on the brain. The night I saw the show (a Sunday) saw a few of the rappers a little tired, too, and not as sharp by the end of the night. But as a live experience it’s certainly a great night out and fans of the whole philosophy behind hip-hop culture shouldn’t miss this. The Sydney-based group have been at it for a while, so I’d imagine on a really good night they could blow you out of your seat.

Ends tonight, Lithuanian Club.


I can’t stand the term troubadour although I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because I weirdly associate it with medieval re-enactment societies or something. Why is someone a troubadour and not a musician? Because they talk or tell stories or whatever? Why troubadours? Why not bards or gleemen or cantabanks or hell, why stick to medieval Europe? What about the West African griots or Chinese shuoshu or any of the other countless cultures for whom musical storytelling has a long and interesting history?

When I hear “troubadour” I imagine these guys. These guys are not cool.

Simon Oats is a bit of a troubadour but it pains me to say it. Not because he’s not a musical storyteller but more because I don’t have a better word to describe him. Here he retells the story of Orpheus through story and song, giving it all a very modern air. A satyr is recast as a sleazy P-funk sex addict, the ferryman becomes the lead singer from The Streets, and Orpheus himself sounds like a dead-ringer for Jeff Buckley. He also interprets the story through the lens of modern relationships, providing an answer to the question “why did the idiot look back?” in a way that will ring true for anyone who’s ever sabotaged their own relationship.

Oats thankfully doesn't employ a lute or pipes or anything, sticking to a sweet Les Paul guitar with an array of effects.

I found it an intriguing hour, and really enjoyed the story (it’s a good story, really). But it all feels a bit like an anomaly, given that telling a classic story through music to a small audience isn’t a major part of our culture today. And there’s a little earnestness to the piece that I guess shouldn’t be discouraged – Oats clearly relishes the story he’s chosen to present – but it’s sheer oddness in this age made me wonder who the intended audience for this might be. Me, maybe, since I had a good time. I dunno.

Ends Oct 9 at the Dog Theatre, Footscray.

No comments: