RSC races up Shakespeare with the help of Adem Ilhan

The rock guitarist is updating the sound of Shakespeare

�There was a time when incidental music for a Shakespeare play was drums and trumpets (if it was a history with battle scenes) or plaintive lute songs (if it wasn’t).

Then the RSC turned up and things became racier – as they will be when the company brings its latest batch of touring productions to the Roundhouse next month.

Three of them – The Tempest, Twelfth Night and Comedy of Errors – will have music by the anglo-Turkish Adem Ilhan, whose musical world couldn’t be further removed from drums and trumpets.

A bass guitarist, Ilhan plays with rock group The Fridge (which, to be technical, is post-rock/nu-folk). And though he’s dabbled in the past with theatre music, these RSC shows are his first major undertaking.

They proved a baptism of fire for someone who, as he says, has never been a “dots on the page” person.

“For this, everything had to be laid out in advance before the musicians came on board, then there was a really intense period while we adjusted and tweaked. It was exciting to collaborate with someone quite so famous and quite so dead as William Shakespeare, but I’ve never worked so hard.”

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By coincidence, Ilhan’s first involvement with the RSC came out of an encounter at the Roundhouse. “I was playing a gig there in 2007, and the RSC director David Farr saw it, liked what he heard, and filed the experience away in the back of his head until the right project came up.”


What made this trio of plays the right project is that they’re none of the conventional Shakespearian stagings. As Ilhan says: “You couldn’t have someone come on in one of these shows with a sackbut: that’s not the approach. And it’s why they came to me. They wanted me to be myself and write the kind of music I’d write anyway.”

That meant electronic keyboards, guitars and atmospheric colouring from oddball instruments like the water-phone, which is effectively a covered bowl of water with metal rods sticking out that are bowed like violin strings.

“It gives you a spectral, swishy sound,” says Ilhan, “somewhere between whale-song and someone scraping their fingers down a chalk-board, in the best possible way.”

As a singer-songwriter, he was most at home with the songs that proliferate Twelfth Night and will be sung by Feste with an on-stage Casio keyboard. But the Tempest music is more instrumental and more texturally complex. “The big struggle there,” he says, “was to make the music hummable and catchy while being a bit weird, outside the patterns of normality.”

Overall he thinks it’s been a good experience despite the steepness of the learning curve. “It was intimidating to start off, but the creative team at the RSC were incredibly eloquent in the way they explained things and helped me understand how to communicate these plays to a modern audience. It’s encouraged me to up my game.”


The RSC season at the Roundhouse is from June 1 to July 5. Booking: or 0844 482 8008.