The Genteel
April 17, 2021


East London's MC Devlin, whose innovative and original use of language and lyric has seen him established as a bright new star of the grime scene. Source:

In his book London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd contends that London is essentially a living and breathing organism in which the present intermingles with the past in what he terms a "continuity of experience." Ackroyd argues that London retains the memories of its former reincarnations which continue to echo down below in the clay foundations of the modern city.

For example, the Clerkenwell district has been home, at one time or another, to social radicals such as Wat Tyler, the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Vladimir Lenin and most recently, hosted the former office headquarters of the charity organisation for the homeless, The Big Issue. The discovery of the remnants of The Curtain Theatre in London's East End brings a sense of clarity and excitement to Ackroyd's theories, and makes me wonder whether the inner-city background soundscape of grime music can be considered the unruly and streetwise love child of the Bard himself.

Rap artist Akala continues to draw parallels
between the works of Shakespeare
 and London's contemporary MCs.


Although knowledge of the precise location of the Curtain had been lost with the passage of time since the theatre's demise in 1622, historians have long believed its ruins lay somewhere beneath the Shoreditch area. Since playing host to the Bard, the East London locale has been gradually enveloped by the modernisation of London. Only an obligatory blue plaque commemorated the historic site, placed with ironic prescience, a short distance from the newly rediscovered theatre.

The Curtain was the city's second playhouse, opening to the public in 1577 and served as the home of William Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, for two years until it moved to the Globe, situated on the bank of the Thames in Southwark.

Unlike how it is perceived today, in Elizabethan times, the theatre was not the sole preserve of the educated classes. The playhouse afforded servants, shopkeepers, wig-makers, bakers and countless other "hoi polloi" an opportunity to join "polite society" in enjoying intricately constructed tales of enigmatic people in extraordinary places. While the wealthy would sit in their gallery seats, "groundlings" would pay a penny each to stand within the "wooden O" and create a raucous bubbling atmosphere as the actors performed onstage before them.

Memorialised as "this wooden O" in the prologue to Shakespeare's Henry V, the Curtain is thought to be the place wherein the Bard first amused the groundlings with two of his greatest works. It is believed that along with Henry V, Romeo and Juliet was first performed at the venue. Given the infamously intemperate nature of the groundlings, it is perhaps not so surprising that such a love story is filled with sword fights aplenty, more insults then you could "bite your thumb at" and strewn with vulgar jokes and innuendo. Shakespeare would have indubitably shaped his plays around the audience's reaction.

...the streets where the genius of English literature once roamed are filled with the sounds of scattergun beats dripping with nocturnal menace, reverberating off the dark brick buildings of East London as young urban poets are "spitting bars" over the rhythms of their experience.

Fast forward over 400 years and the streets where the genius of English literature once roamed are filled with the sounds of scattergun beats dripping with nocturnal menace, reverberating off the dark brick buildings of East London as young urban poets are "spitting bars" over the rhythms of their experience.

Grime music originated in the E3 district of Bow in the early naughties, a cross pollination of musical genres from American hip hop and European electronica, to Chicago house and Jamaican dancehall. Building on their definitively London vocabulary, pioneers of the grime scene such as Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, recounted tales of metaphorical slayings, slanderous barbs and exaggerated self-important stories that resonated with the local audience, before filtering out to the wider world.

A notable indication of this move away from imitating the rap style and phraseology of their American peers was the emergence of South London pioneer Roots Manuva, whose distinctive mix of Cockney, Jamaican patois and cryptic lyrics engendered a self-belief in home grown British rap during the late 1990s. The burgeoning confidence and originality of UK MCs in their own skills has led to some equating their role as storytellers in the context of Shakespeare's innovative and rhythmical usage of the English language.

One such person who has made the parallel is North London rapper Akala. Known as the "Black Shakespeare," Akala has been running Hip Hop Shakespeare Company workshops, helping children recognise the connection between street level wordplay and the high art of the world's greatest playwright. Explaining the importance of the work he does in orientating young minds towards such an idea, Akala told The Guardian in a 2009 interview: "It's about showing them what's attainable. And if Shakespeare is presented as the most unattainable, highbrow entity, but then it's made relevant to them, what else might be? It's part of a wider effort to open kids up to what they wouldn't traditionally be interested in." 

In the meantime, the annual Barbican Weekender arts festival which combines dance, theatre and music, returned earlier this year making a similar juxtaposition between London street culture and its refined counterpart. Themed as Urban Stories, one highlight of the weekend featured musicians from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the ubiquitous Akala and 100 members of the public all combining to produce an "Opera in a Day" using A Midsummer Night's Dream as a starting point. The Orchestra also performed Urban Classic, with stars of the rap and grime scenes such as Ms Dynamite, Fazer, Devlin and Skepta.

An artist's impression of what the
Curtain Theatre might have looked like. 


You wouldn't have to look far for the dissenters of this merging of genres, with purists from either side of the divide no doubt arguing that by placing these two variant art forms together, it dilutes the intrinsic essence of both. In particular, it could be argued that the "dumbing" down of Shakespeare in the name of accessibility is akin to painting an Impressionist masterpiece by numbers, but I would say these detractors are missing the bigger picture. Culture, like the English language, does not reside in a vacuum but develops and remains vital by absorbing influences that pervade the surrounding environment and is thus constantly in motion.

Whether Grime will be remembered in 400 years, I am not so sure. But its spontaneous preponderance in this part of London where Shakespeare probably once shifted and tweaked the lines of two of his most famous plays through his head over and over again, may be a romantic analogy but also a visceral one too.



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