Hip hop hurray for The Táin

Irish legend and contemporary pop culture are set to coalesce in a new hip-hop theatre version of The Táin, to be staged as part of Limerick City of Culture.

Hip-hop theatre remains a rarity in this country as yet but it is already popular in the UK and on the continent. Táin director Ciarda Tobin says the audience can look forward to “an explosive physical experience, a fast-paced show that’s very emotive.” Notably the show features members of hip-hop dance crews drawn from the local Limerick scene and further afield, and will include elements of film and urban visual art.

Tobin became interested in merging hip-hop and the classical storytelling after seeing footage of the Cypher Sessions — a ‘B-boy’ dancing event — in Belfast.

“It was really exciting,” she says. “Each dancer comes into a circle and shows off their skills. It’s about one-upmanship. They try to better each other and there is a battle quality to that without it being directly combative. It’s all about asserting your prowess. At the time I was thinking about The Táin and I thought this would be an interesting connection.”

The Táin tells the epic tale of the cattle raid of Cooley. As the story goes, Ulster is a mighty place to live altogether, what with it having the country’s most prized bull and everything. But then a couple of guys who are up to no good (Queen Medb of Connacht and her husband Ailill) start to make some trouble in the neighbourhood. They want the cow and they’re raising an army to get it. It’s left to Cuchulain, Ulster’s mightiest hero, to repel them.

Tobin says that the project of adapting the saga is itself a way of sustaining the legend’s power.

“The interesting thing is that the stories themselves are layered, and the books are based on stories that survived through many tellings,” she says. “It’s a sedimentary process and so this is just another part of that process. Of course, there was the amazing version done a few years ago by Fabulous Beast, and Joe and Denise Moriarty did a ballet version in the 1980s. So we’re all layering this story.”

“The epic tale may draw the more traditional theatre-goer and they’ll be pushed outside their boundary because it’s not told in the traditional way,” she says. “And at the same time it will hopefully appeal to people who don’t ordinarily go to the theatre but who may be attracted by an art form that they’re more comfortable with. I think it’s really important that we reflect the urban setting. Limerick is a city and the work has to ask what does it mean to live in a city?”

As the urban art form par excellence, hip-hop is a perfect medium through which to ask that question. The genre is often unfairly misperceived as being solely about surface and bravado, but, as Tobin points out, hip-hip artists employ it as a creative means of exploring their world.

“The choreographers on the show always make it clear that hip-hop is a way of thinking about the world,” she says.

“It’s about engagement and it’s very positive. And they’re extremely positive people. There’s an ethic that goes with it and it’s one that’s inclusive, relevant, aware, and all these practitioners focus on that. It might seem like a push to say that Shakespeare was the hip-hop of his day but the reason Shakespeare has survived is that his work was relevant and resonant for its time and I hope that this production is relevant and resonant for ours.”

The Táin runs in The Milk Market, Limerick, July 20-25


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