Testament on Orpheus in the Record Shop and being part of the BBC's Lights Up season

When rapper and writer Testament was asked if he was interested in working with Leeds Playhouse and Opera North, he jumped at the chance.

Testament outside Leeds Playhouse. His stage piece Orpheus in the Record Shop is being screened on BBC 4. (Jonathan Gawthorpe).
Testament outside Leeds Playhouse. His stage piece Orpheus in the Record Shop is being screened on BBC 4. (Jonathan Gawthorpe).

The only problem was he had just five weeks from being commissioned until the opening night.

His finished piece was to form part of Connecting Voices, a collaboration based around a series of new and existing works fusing classic and contemporary theatre and music, with the themes of isolation and connection, and resilience and reflection at their heart.

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Testament (aka Andy Brooks) worked remotely with director Aletta Collins. “I talked to her about the story I had in mind and she said it reminded her of Orpheus and Eurydice and the opera by Gluck. So I thought it would be good to create a kind of response to this myth and show the power of music to take us on journeys and inspire us and to be a balm in tough times.”

Testament performing with the orchestra of Opera North. (Credit: Anthony Robling).

The result was Orpheus in the Record Shop, which fuses spoken word and beatboxing with players from the Orchestra of Opera North, all with a contemporary Yorkshire twist.

In Testament’s story, Orpheus runs a record shop in Leeds’s Corn Exchange where a visit from an enigmatic stranger sends his fragile reality into a spin. Driven by an original soundtrack of hip hop, soul and funk, he ventures back into the past to confront some painful truths.

It is, says Testament, a story of isolation and the search for redemption. “It’s about someone who’s suffered a loss and isolated himself in a record shop which he’s poured his life into.

He starts off being judgemental and someone who is carrying a grievance and by the end he’s more open and manages to reconnect with people.”

The rapper and playwright on stage performing Orpheus last autumn. (Anthony Robling).

In little over a month Testament not only wrote and composed the music, he also penned the script, which he performs himself.

“The show went out on a Friday and the last piece of music was composed on the Wednesday and the orchestra had only played it twice, but they’re such great musicians and we managed to pull it off.”

He has worked with Leeds Playhouse and Opera North before, but says he was humbled to be approached to work with them on a project like this. “These are two huge and really important cultural organisations and to have their backing was incredible.”

Orpheus in the Record Shop premiered to a socially-distanced audience at the Playhouse last October and was an important moment in the initial remobilisation of live theatre for audiences.

On the back of this it was filmed for the BBC’s Lights Up, a season of plays for TV and radio produced in partnership with theatres across the UK, and is being screened on BBC 4 this Wednesday.

James Brining, Leeds Playhouse’s artistic director who co-directed the filmed version, is full of praise for Testament. “The man has got nerves of steel, as well as being multi-talented. I don’t think anyone else could have achieved what he did.”

Testament is certainly a mercurial talent who straddles multiple art forms. He teaches beatboxing and rap and at the same time is a writer and theatre maker.

His childhood was an itinerant one but he found an anchor in music. “I’ve been beatboxing since I was 11 and rapping since I was 14,” he says.

He now lives in Brighouse and first moved to Yorkshire in the 90s when he came here to study.

He has since worked with a diverse range of artists, including Corinne Bailey Rae and Ray Parker Jnr, and has been a member of Shlomo’s acclaimed beatbox choir.

His involvement with the latter led him to combining music and theatre. In 2014 he presented a one-man show featuring responses to William Blake poems in the form of rap and hip hop. Then three years ago he wrote Black Men Walking, a play inspired by a walking group from South Yorkshire.

At the heart of all his work is storytelling, and he hopes people will be moved by Orpheus in the Record Shop. “With every piece that I write, whether it’s a little poem or a sprawling play, there’s always an aim, perhaps spiritual or political and sometimes both, and this one was about having compassion for one another and for ourselves,” he says.

“I didn’t want it to be a lockdown play but for me this period has exacerbated what was already there, whether that is social or racial inequality, or how disconnected we are in our political bubbles, and these things are in the play. Sometimes they’re addressed through humour, sometimes addressed through song, they’re all little touchstones on Orpheus’s journey.

“I hope people also have a bit of a laugh and enjoy the great music from the Opera North players because that’s a big part of it. Art and culture is all about stories and when we’re in the midst of a crisis we need stories to give us the path out, whether that’s a play, a piece of music or a parable.”

It’s a view no doubt shared by all those who work in theatre, for whom the past 12 months have been tough. “As soon as the city comes back to life the theatre needs to come back to life,” says James Brining.

“So that means we need to be nimble and have plans that we can adapt and change, which is something we have learned and demonstrated we can do over the past year.”

If there has been a saving grace to the past 12 months it is that streaming live theatre has brought work to a wider audience. The Playhouse’s production of A Christmas Carol, for instance, was seen by people in 16 countries online. “I don’t think we’ll go back to how it was before as a sector,” adds Brining. “I think digital’s here to stay and we have to be smart about how we build that into projects in the future.”

There is light at the end of the tunnel as our theatres and arts organisations prepare to reopen again and welcome audiences back.

Opera North’s forthcoming season includes live performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio, as well as a new series of livestreamed chamber concerts from April 22 and a co-production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Leeds Playhouse rescheduled for this summer.

The Playhouse will kick off with Decades: Stories from the City, commissioned to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It features six new plays and monologues by the likes of Simon Armitage, Alice Nutter and Maxine Peake, telling stories rooted firmly in the North.

“I think people need, now more than ever, to come together and experience what theatre, and indeed music and sport can provide,” says Brining. “These aren’t essential but they are the things that make life worth living.”

Orpheus in The Record Shop is being shown on BBC 4 on Wednesday, at 11pm. It will also be available on BBC iPlayer.