Reclaiming hip hop

This Sadler's Wells show saves the genre from itself.

I now realise (what took me so long?) that the perfect medium for expressing despair, desire, joy, friendship and the feminist credo is undoubtedly hip hop. Nothing quite says I love you like a spot of locking and popping. Krumping is the new iambic pentameter! Such is the eye-opening evidence of Some Like It Hip Hop, currently playing at Sadler’s Wells.

Fittingly, given hip hop’s frisky bricoleur tendencies, dance company ZooNation have taken two existing classics of cross-dressing, Some Like It Hot and Twelfth Night, and parlayed these into something rich, strange and very street.

The bare bones of the story articulate an admittedly crude parable, teaching the kids that books are cool and misogyny ain’t (but then plotting wasn’t Shakespeare’s strong suit, either). We are transported - arguably not very far - to a land where books are burned, or banned, and women demeaned and subjugated. It’s Riyadh, with drum ‘n’ bass. To take on and take down this benighted, boys-own city state our two girl heroes Jo-Jo and Kerri must don Groucho Marx moustaches, and enter the citadel disguised as chaps.

In the show’s final “battle”, the regime’s goons busts some impressive moves but it’s a one nil victory as the girls and the wonks stick it to the patriarchy. It’s not made wholly clear how the girls link to the books, or the books link to the wellbeing of the state, but dance is a mode that laughs in the face of the non sequitur.

This is a show in which everything flips: bodies, beats, texts and genders. Inverting the Jack Lemmon-Tony Curtis axis is a stroke of genius. This time it’s the women’s turn to ogle the men (dressed, at one point, in cursory boxers for the night). The way the two performers (Lizzie Gough and Teneisha Bonner) ape a blokeish physicality is an utter joy. The brilliance of their forgeries is that they don’t just look like women pretending to be men. They look like women pretending to be men pretending to be men - exposing posturing masculinity in all its crotch-grabbing nullity.

Bonner is a fabulous dancer, and an even better comedian. As she mans up and gets her swag on, only the slightly wild and shifty eyes give away anxieties about being unmasked. And what real boy doesn’t have these same anxieties?

There are two love stories played out in Some Like It Hip Hop, one of which is between the only bookish guy in town (a charming Tommy Franzén) and Gough, as the cross-dressed Jo-Jo. The lovers perform a delightfully goofy his ‘n’ hers routine: a hip hop pas de deux. Franzén, in his dapper checks and swotty bow tie, dances with the nonchalant grace of an Astaire and a Chaplin. Who wouldn’t fall in love with him?  

Meanwhile the repressive Governor of the mini-kingdom (Duwayne Taylor: sultry, sulky) has demons of his own. In flashback mode, we watch his tyranny take root in the death of his beloved wife. During this vignette, the dancers’ movements start to judder and stutter; glitches appear in the scene, as if it were a video tape degraded in the replaying. It is up to the magnificent Kerri to redeem the bereaved despot, burned up by such memories.

The original score (by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde), which includes some terrific live singing, rips from jazz, funk, blues, rock and rap. Walde himself surfaces benignly in umpteen scenes, singing, chorusing, playing the guitar. Arguably no-one’s more ubiquitous, however, than the unseen Katie Prince, who’s director, writer, choreographer and lyricist. Her physical style is an ebullient and witty mash of moves, as she appropriates everything from cheesy-licious dancehall to acrobatic breakdance. It’s choreography that makes the rest of the West End look old. Her biggest move is the reclamation of hip hop itself, not to mention its vile “bros before hoes” canon. In this land-grab, it’s annexed as a feminist form. Prince’s genre-bender pulls hip hop away from narcissistic, belligerent machismo and re-imagines it as co-operative, romantic and feminine. Some teeny bopper elements in the stalls screamed for the virtuoso (male) dancers like they were rock gods - but time and again the narrative carefully reels them back from such fetishisation.

Marvellously, the audience could not have been - rare in theatreland - culturally more multi, or generationally more mixed (a few, surely, more at the hip op stage?).

Some Like It Hip Hop? Surely All Like It Hip Hop.

A scene from Some Like It Hip Hop (Photograph: Simon Prince)
SIPA PRESS/REX
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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge