Among the many epigraphs of Williams Blake’s final prophetic book, Jerusalem, which he subtitled, The Emancipation of the Giant Albion, the poet wrote a brief tribute to innovation and imaginative rebellion: “I must create a system or be enslaved to another man’s / I will not reason and compare, my business is to create.” These are the words which greet the audience upon entering Testament’s latest show, Blake Remixed at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool, and may be considered to be the inspiration and anchor of the whole production.
The show combines elements of beat box, scratch DJ, and new visual media to illustrate a dramatic retelling of real life events in Testament’s own life.
Through the course of the show, the rapper reveals how the issues of today were also pressing matters to the society in which Blake was living; he signals towards the questions that Blake asked during his lifetime, as well as the answers after which he sought, in order to highlight the close correlation between issues affecting Blake then and audiences today.
The performance, a single act about an hour in length, is split into separate episodes. Each episode is interspersed with various illuminating interludes which are framed onstage by the invocation of key figures from Blake’s imagined mythology: the ever-present, all-encompassing Four Zoas.
As an expert beatboxer, Testament uses his deft vocal skills to cut between and invoke the different characters in his story, which he constructs in much the same way a hip hop DJ cuts together different tracks to create a new voice.
Testament is joined onstage by co-creator and two time scratch DJ world champion, DJ Woody, whose innovative style has pioneered over twenty different scratch techniques, and, in the case of the show, a hugely successful method of storytelling.
MOBO award winner Soweto Kinch, Mercury prize nominee Ty, as well as Guinness World Record breaking beatboxer Shlomo and UK rapper Jehst, co-founder of YNR, also appear; each as one of the Four Zoas. Using a technology conceived by video projectionist Dave Lynch that synchronizes the movement of DJ Woody’s turntables with the images that are projected onto (onstage) screens, the backdrop of the performance space provides a blank page for projected images, set in the shape of an opened book.
These two upright quadrangles, figuratively bound at the spine by a DJ’s booth, are the unequivocal backbone and support of the entire show, and it’s upon these that the action of the performance is visually illustrated. It’s a simple conceit, but it works wonderfully.
The digital projection brilliantly mirrors the innovation evident in Blake’s own method of illumination (called acid relief etching, which the poet referred to as ‘stereotype’) as a modern example of ground breaking artistic design. Along with the inspired synthesis of music and digital illuminations, Blake Remixed is an experience which gives audiences a new way of approaching story-telling with light and sound.
Overall this show is a terrific example of how the intersection of art and technology can create new forms of expression. Its simple and quite conventional plot follows a predictable arc of inspiration, conflict, and eventual deliverance. The end of the show, even after the gleeful satisfaction of the final episode, was a little underwhelming. However, the ingenious infusion of its artistic innovation is the show’s ultimate redemption, one which creates a compelling production.