North Finchley is an unlikely place to begin the first leg of a rap opera tour but such was the setting for the premier of Jonzi's curiously titled play Markus The Sadist. What the Arts Depot lacked in prestige it made up for in palpable excitement, as regular theatre goers and a coach-load of excitable Bashy fans mingled in the foyer, awaiting the opening of theatre doors.
The rap opera, inspired in part by the life of French aristocrat, revolutionary and writer Marquis de Sade, explores the ascension of a talented young emcee from local battle champion to international rap superstar. From the offset we are transported to a polarized hip hop universe where underground respect comes at the expense of a pay cheque and mainstream appeal, replete with crotch-grabbing and hard steel. Our homegrown hero, played by MOBO-nominated emcee and actor Ashley ‘Bashy' Thomas, attempts to straddle the divide before deciding to shed his roots (and his British accent) in search of global success.
Markus' quest for hip hop recognition raises questions about identity, race, family values and the exploitation of art by corporations (as represented by 'The Company'). Such themes have been central to much of Jonzi's previous theatrical excursions, in particular the phenomenal Aeroplane Man.
As a rap opera, music of course plays a pivotal role. Resisting the commercial allure of UK funky and electro, Markus The Sadist is underpinned by a musical score that swings from somber jazz-inspired moments to gangsta-leaning thug music, all conducted by the masterful hand of Soweto Kinch.
Jonzi makes clever use of multi-media to drive the narrative, often to great comic effect. News flashes, courtesy of Jump Off TV, appear on the mobile projector screens throughout the production to provide a context for Markus' meteoric rise and inevitable fall. However, the bawdy b-boy humour that peppers the play at times threatens to lower the tone beneath the bassline. Throwaway references to ‘niggas', ‘bitches' and ‘ass' fail to titillate, shock or add anything of significance. However, this is only a minor criticism. Markus The Sadist is the work of a witty wordsmith capable of crafting intelligent and edgy urban dialogue.
Beautifully cast, the eight-strong ensemble delivers. Colleen Joseph excels as Syreena Dream, Markus' minx-like love interest. With hustler ambition akin to J-Lo, the b-girl diva works the floor and the audience with every move. Steve Macauley's turn as an inmate with a conscience evokes unexpected tenderness and Nolan Weekes' undeniable charm makes his portrayal of Top Blizzy, the suave wheeler -dealer label boss, all the more beguiling.
However, it is Rob Broderick who gives the most compelling performance, as The Hydra. The highly rated Irish stand up comedian shape shifts from a maniacal US military man, into a cunning French aristocrat and then finally into a chilling English diplomat, without missing a beat. As a one-man world summit, his incredible monologues imbue The Company's plans for Markus with a sense of genuine menace.
Catch this one as it makes its way to a theatre near(er) you.