Theatre company founder: ‘Using rap in Shakespeare works surprisingly well’

Anna Calder-Marshall as Gertrude, and Tom Burke as Hamlet in The Live Literature Company production

Anna Calder-Marshall as Gertrude, and Tom Burke as Hamlet in The Live Literature Company production 'Shakespeare's Kings and Queens', devised and directed by Valerie Doulton - Credit: Archant

Rap and Shakespeare: not the most natural of pairings, perhaps.

Valerie Doulton has campaigned against female genital mutilation (FGM) for decades

Valerie Doulton has campaigned against female genital mutilation (FGM) for decades - Credit: Archant

But Valerie Doulton, the Highgate founder of a literary performance company, disagrees.

She has condensed one of the Bard’s last-written plays, The Tempest, into a one hour show that begins with the very modern musical format.

It’s one of several upcoming productions from her Live Literature Company (LLC), which aims to fuse literature, music, history and poetry live on stage to make literature more accessible.

Combining rap and Shakespeare is undoubtedly a controversial move, but Valerie says it works surprisingly well.

“The children love it, because it’s all in rhyme and we can communicate Shakespeare’s words to a young audience.

“Using music, it widens our understanding of different cultures.”

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Valerie, the great-great-granddaughter of Henry Doulton, a member of the Royal Doulton pottery dynasty, adds: “Shakespeare can enrich children’s lives.

“Being able to use their imagination is so important to their education, to make sure they are not just learning by rote, with lists and things, but by developing their imagination.”

She’s taking the show to Stratford-upon-Avon for three nights to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, but first there will be a free dress rehearsal for anyone to attend at Highgate Library in Chester Road on June 29 at 7.15pm.

The rehearsal will be performed by drama students of Niagara University in New York, who are working with Valerie as part of their study abroad programme.

It’s all part of her company ethos to use performance as a way to celebrate diversity and bring different cultures together; she makes a point of casting disabled actors and people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

“I want to integrate other cultures to make one great culture,” she says.

The company started in 2000, and the launch was attended by the late Michael Foot, the former Labour Party leader from Hampstead, and the late former Thatcher minister Lord Gilmour.

Since then, the LLC claims to “bring words to life with love and laughter” by putting on accessible and diverse productions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a take on King Lear and Hamlet among others for a Doulton-devised play called Shakespeare’s Kings and Queens, as well as pieces about the lives of literary figures like William Blake and Lord Byron.

On June 30, the lives and works of the Brontë sisters will be explored with a theatrical performance of the play Charlotte, Emily and Anne at the National Portrait Gallery to tie in with the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth.

The play, written by the late Douglas Verrall, is being revived as a five-woman ensemble piece.

“The Brontes were an important part of our heritage,” says Valerie. “It’s a piece about women, and over the passage of time, it’s become very pertinent to show something so positive about women.”

But the company does not only produce plays.

On July 7, it will stage a rare performance of the epic First World War poem In Parenthesis by Welsh poet and painter David Jones to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. But in keeping with the company’s mantra of combining different artistic mediums, the original text has been reworked by Valerie to incorporate the music of Ivor Gurney, who fought in the First World War, as well as spirituals composed by African slaves, representing the often-forgotten black soldiers of that war.

The piece has been performed twice before in Wales but this is the first time it comes to London.

“I don’t think David Jones has been properly recognised, and he is still really looked at as an artist rather than as a writer. So it seemed really important to do it in London as well as in Wales,” says Valerie.

If literature and performance seems a long way removed from her ancestral calling of pottery, then think again.

“I was doing research on Henry Doulton for a talk and I discovered that apart from his pottery, his other great love was literature.

“So I suppose it was inevitable that I would be doing this!”

For information about upcoming performances, visit the website here. Valerie is asking literature-loving philanthropists for funding help for her next two productions: a piece on the life of Ivor Gurney, and a play about Portuguese poet Fernando Passoa.

Contact her via the website.