Theatre review: The Rap Guide to Evolution/Origins…/The Origin of the Species…

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THEATRE THE RAP GUIDE TO EVOLUTION GILDED BALLOON TEVIOT (VENUE 14) ORIGINS BY STEVEN CANNY AND JOHN NICHOLSON PLEASANCE DOME (VENUE 23) THE ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES BY MEANS OF NATURAL SELECTION OR THE SURVIVAL OF (R)EVOLUTIONARY THEORIES IN THE FACE OF SCIENTIFIC AND ECCLESIASTICAL OBJECTIONS: BEING A MUSICAL COMEDY ABOUT CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882) PLEASANCE COURTYARD (VENUE 33)

CANADIAN rapper Baba Brinkman is in danger of becoming a Fringe institution. Last year he picked up a slew of rave reviews – not to mention the Spirit of the Fringe Award and a Fringe First nomination – for The Rebel Cell, a hip-hop meditation on freedom written and performed with UK rapper Dizraeli. This followed his first big Fringe success, 2004's The Rap Canterbury Tales, which did exactly what it said on the tin to five-star acclaim. And now he's back again with a show so brilliantly conceived and effervescently performed that it's seen him mobbed by admiring audiences, even though it's on in the middle of the afternoon.

Last autumn, Brinkman was approached by Dr Mark Pallen, a microbiologist from Birmingham University who suggested that, to mark Charles Darwin's bicentenary in 2009, the performer might consider doing for the theory of evolution what he had previously done for Chaucer. The Rap Guide to Evolution is the result, and as it was checked for accuracy by Pallen himself, it is, as Brinkman proudly points out, the first peer-reviewed hip-hop show in history.

Not only is it factually correct, it's also dazzlingly intelligent. Where most people would be happy just to convey the gist of Darwin's theories in rhyme, Brinkman adds a twist: this isn't just a show about evolution delivered in a hip-hop style, it's also a show about the evolution of hip-hop. Just as some species in the natural world prosper and others die out, Brinkman explains, so some rappers adapt and survive while others "go extinct like Vanilla Ice". Evolution, it transpires, has much to teach us about hip-hop, and vice versa: bling is a fitness display; the process of natural selection operates on iPod playlists and teenage pregnancy in the ghettos can be read as an evolutionary strategy designed to maximise the chances of genetic material being passed on in a high-risk environment.

Brinkman's right: after seeing this show, you'll never look at a hip-hop music video in the same way again. Oh, and everyone should take heed of his plan for world peace: don't sleep with mean people. Like most things in The Rap Guide to Evolution, it makes perfect sense when you stop and think about it.

For his whistlestop hip-hop romp through Darwin's theories (which, on reflection, could do with being slowed down just a touch in places for the benefit of some of us less highly evolved homo sapiens), Brinkman wears a T-shirt bearing a stylised image of Darwin, one that casts him in the same iconic vernacular as Che Guevara. That, of course, is what Darwin has become: an icon. The trouble is, when people turn into icons it becomes difficult to see them as people. Happily, though, there are two other shows on the Fringe this year that use a little creative licence to bring us closer to the living, breathing human being behind that instantly-recognisable beard.

For the first couple of minutes of John Hinton's one-man show, The Origins of the Species…, it seems as if he might be about to give us a straight portrayal of the young Darwin – he's certainly equipped with the necessary accent and clothes. Don't be fooled though. Ten minutes in, his hip, flip, pot-smoking Charlie Boy is rocking out on an acoustic guitar and juggling plastic spiders.

Apart from his fascination with barnacles, I'm not sure the character Hinton plays bears all that much resemblance to the real Charles Darwin, but then that's not really the point. For all the period dress and antique furniture on display, what we really have here is a portrayal of a frustrated teen whose dad won't let him take an exotic gap year. And if that helps bring Darwin to life for 21st-century audiences, well, then it has achieved something worthwhile.

Like Hinton's show, Origins, by Steven Canny and John Nicholson, could equally be called 'Darwin: The Formative Years', taking us as it does from the great man's birth to the day he first set foot on board the Beagle in just over 90 minutes. Harry Arkwright gives a bright, breezy performance as Charles (who seems more interested in beetles than barnacles in this incarnation), but it's the excellent Max Hutcheon as his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who is, if not the play's main protagonist, then at least the audience's main point of emotional engagement with it.

Something of an evolutionary theorist himself in his time, Erasmus is already dead when the action begins, but thanks to the magical power of theatre he is able to freeze the action of his grandson's early life at will, so he can to tell us what's going on. He is also able to communicate with Charles from beyond the grave, constantly hovering at his elbow, urging him to ignore his father's orders to conform and follow his dreams instead.

None of which is terribly Darwinian, of course – I'm not sure his writings are really compatible with belief in an afterlife – but let's not split hairs here. The play's inspiring message is that, far from being slaves to our genetic make-up, we are free to choose our own destinies. In theory, at least, success, happiness and even greatness are only a few right choices away.

The Rap Guide to Evolution until 31 August, today 2:45pm; Origins… until 29 August, tomorrow 3:30pm; The Origin of the Species… until 31 August, today 12:15pm.

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