What am I if I’m not what I tell myself I am?

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This article was published 13/12/2016 (1654 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What am I if I’m not what I tell myself I am?

This is the central question posed in Shakespeare’s King Richard the Second, and one that will be explored in the musical interpretation of that play, Am I Not King, being staged by a cast of local musicians at the West End Cultural Centre starting Wednesday.

The concept is a little hard to grasp — it’s a Shakespearean musical, kind of — until you see the show unfold. The songs were all written by Matt Peters, of local indie-pop band Royal Canoe, and Tom Keenan, a fellow singer-songwriter and actor who also stars in the show as King Richard.

At a rehearsal last week, Keenan gave his cue line and the band started up, bolstered by some stellar vocals from Sarah Constible and grainy, haunting visuals by James Jansen on screens behind and flanking the stage, and suddenly everything made sense.

"I wish I had come up with this term, but I didn’t... this really is like a live concept album, so for the audience’s experience, that’s really what they’re getting," says director Christopher Brauer, who also conceived the idea for the project.

"I think that’s what it is: it’s this straight out of the ‘70s concept-album approach that we’re just playing live with story."

"Often (albums) have the liner notes that tell the story, but we’re just playing the liner notes," adds Keenan.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>From left: Am I Not King actor Tom Keenan, director Christopher Brauer and Royal Canoe’s Matt Peters.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

From left: Am I Not King actor Tom Keenan, director Christopher Brauer and Royal Canoe’s Matt Peters.

Shakespeare’s King Richard the Second is a historical drama written around 1595 based on the last two tumultuous years of King Richard II of England’s life, which ended in 1400 (he ruled the country from 1377-1399).

Brauer says only about 40 per cent of the play’s original text made it into Am I Not King, which runs about two hours, while the rest comprises dialogue he wrote and 14 new songs composed by Peters and Keenan, which will be performed by Royal Canoe live.

"We were really into this idea of using other people’s words, using prose as lyrics and trying to discover the musicality in words that aren’t necessarily meant to be lyrical," says Peters.

"For me it was a learning experience. Working with (Chris) as a collaborator, and Tom and I working together, and learning you have this initial thought, this initial vision in your head, but then there’s something about true collaboration that you’re able to just adapt it to other people and other ideas.

"I feel like this project there was so much ping-ponging that went on... that collaborative process was really fruitful from the beginning."

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Matt Peters of Winnipeg band Royal Canoe transforms Shakespeare’s verse with a contemporary score that pops the bubble of a delusional king in crisis.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Matt Peters of Winnipeg band Royal Canoe transforms Shakespeare’s verse with a contemporary score that pops the bubble of a delusional king in crisis.

Getting Am I Not King to the stage has been a long development to say the least — Brauer had initially toyed around with the idea of tackling an interpretation of the lesser-known play back in the 1990s, but pieces didn’t start falling into place until three years ago when zone41, a theatre organization that gathers "artists who live or have roots in Manitoba together to re-imagine classic works through ensemble collaboration," and Peters jumped on board with Brauer and Keenan.

Since then, they have spent countless hours writing and rewriting, workshopping and tweaking to find the right balance between the classic text and their desired contemporary spin on it.

"I think the contemporary text does a good job at bridging Shakespeare’s text with the contemporary-sounding music. For me, it doesn’t seem shoehorned in, it doesn’t seem incongruent," says Peters.

"The modern text is often responding to the Shakespeare text," adds Keenan. "There will be a scene in the original play, and then Richard turns to the audience and says ‘Can you believe that!?’ So his internal thoughts that he’s sharing with the audience are a response to all this stuff that has happened. He’s trying to work it out with the audience, so that’s where the modern text fits in."

"We’re keeping it very contemporary. Costumes are contemporary, stage is contemporary, lots of contemporary language, because the point isn’t to set it in the ‘ye olde,’ which feels a little scary for a lot of people and very distant. Instead we’ve got this thrift-shop esthetic going on, and that isn’t just budget-driven," says Brauer, laughing. "We just want to tell the story as a bunch of people in the world right now."

erin.lebar@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @NireRabel

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Manager of audience engagement for news

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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