“Canterbury Tales Remixed”
Baba Brinkman and Mr Simmonds Underbelly 1750 until 25th August Reviewed 9th August £12 5 stars
I met a Fringe attendee the other day who seemed to embody almost all of the negative stereotypes that exist about the event. A Cambridge graduate from the Home Counties and eager to let you know it, he was positively effluent on the subject of poetry. But at the same time, he had a very narrow understanding of the term beyond the sonnet form (and a pretty shaky grasp of that).
When I mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing Baba Brinkman and Mr Simmonds’ Canterbury Tales Remixed, he seemed wearily dismissive. Rap, it seems, has no appeal for an Oxbridge poet.
It’s a mindset that Baba would probably take objection to. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s unfinished narrative verse cycle in Middle English, has been a staple of upper-secondary syllabi for centuries. It’s been read and forgotten about by generations of students, and for that reason alone probably has enough academic cachet to call itself a part of the English canon.
Yet it’s also an incredibly bawdy work (featuring flatulent analingus as a highlight), and one that relies on a vibrant dynamism and narrative sensibility to drive itself. It deals with and draws from epic myths and gutter life equally; has a complex interweaving of speakers and framing structures; and it was at least partially intended as a performance piece – all of which you’ll find in rap.
Baba Brinkman has produced an outstanding show that brings all of these elements to life, using an updated and relevant tone and often-hilarious wordplay, while retaining the core messages and themes of Chaucer’s poetry. His rapping is backed up by live turntabling (and original tracks) from Mr Simmonds.
The main drawcard of the show is how unashamedly fun it is. The concept itself, of course, is comic in its own right. And Canterbury Tales Remixed is as self-aware and playful (with its own absurdity and that of its dual traditions) as the original, or indeed as the best rap can be too. It has all the charm and entertainment value of a good story, with the easy-to-digest accessibility and spectacle of pop music. Yet the incredibly technical lyricism of Brinkman means that there’s plenty here for the most discerning literary critic or rap genius to chew over.
A lot of Baba Brinkman’s work is focused on bringing dense subject matter to audiences that might not be willing or able to access them in other formats. It’s an important and worthy endeavour, but in my opinion one of the great successes of Canterbury Tales Remixed is that it draws a link between the tropes and quirks of hip-hop and the more static world of ‘classroom’ poetry. It makes the living form accessible for those (like our Home Counties friend, or my grandmother) who find exploring new ground alone an intimidating experience. Baba’s tongue-in-cheek pastiche of Chaucer’s equally tongue-in-cheek homily to his inspirations is worthy of an essay in itself, likening as it does Ovid and the Matter of Rome to Biggie and the West Coast scene.
In my review of Baba Brinkman’s other show Rap Guide to Religion (also running at the Fringe this year), I acknowledged that others might not get as much out of it as I did. In the case of Canterbury Tales Remixed, however, I’m certain that every attendee will have both a five-star experience and a hell of a good time.