Ever wonder what would happen if someone were to use characters from Shakespeare and make a musical inspired by them? What if a single person performed all of the roles?
Emerging playwright Matt Sax pushes the boundary of acceptable story content in his one man musical, “Clay,” using an combination of hip-hop, rap, and comedy to tell the coming of age story of Clifford, a traumatized teenager fleeing from a fractured family at home. While many renditions of “King Henry IV” have been acted over the centuries, this modern take on the play loosely fleshes out Prince Hal and Flagstaff’s mentor-student relationship, weaving contemporary struggles of an adolescent musician with a dark childhood.
First performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2004, “Clay” strikes a balance of humor and calamity through songs and flashbacks to Clifford’s past as a teenager and to his disturbing relationships with parental figures. Sir John, inspired by Falstaff from “King Henry IV,” shows up and helps Clifford deal with his issues. Like the rotund and aging Falstaff, Sir John isn’t the most attractive guy in town, with a deformed face from a car accident prior to the events of the play. Max covers the majority of his face with a hood when acting as Clifford’s mentor to emphasize his deformity.
Hip-hop helps Clifford climb out of his shell and express himself with modern poetry. LIke Prince Hal, he spends his time in an alternative space, developing a knack for public speaking by learning from an eccentric mentor.Sir John does his best to educate his protégé in the ways of the world. Once a famous rapper, Sir John now owns a bookstore and works with Clifford on his rapping abilities. Rap parallels Shakespearean poetry while Sir John imitates Falstaff in this modern interpretation of the play’s mentor-student dynamic. Sir John transforms Clifford from a quiet, shy teenager into a proud leader, mirroring Falstaff’s mentorship of the prince in the ways of debauchery and communication.
Clifford holds on to Sir John as his constant father figure, who promotes him and encourages his rapping ability. Eventually coming to terms with his family issues, Clifford becomes a successful rapper, going by the street name “Clay.” In the last scene of the one-man musical, we discover that Sir John’s narration of Clifford’s past has actually been a stalling tactic. As Matt Sax flips off his hood to transition into Clifford one last time, the budding rapper reveals that he has symbolically slain his metaphorical Hotspur by beating his abusive father half to death in a climatic struggle for freedom. With blood on his face, Clifford finally steps onto the cusp of manhood as he “walks” onto the stage, beginning his rapping performance.
For the intrigued, here’s a video sample of Max’s rapping skills from “Clay.” In it, you’ll see how Max seamlessly transitions between characters, with a flick of his hood or the drop in voice. While his skills at hip-hopping, rapping, and beat-boxing add some comic relief to the musical, these tools also reveal some of the darker and disturbing elements of Clifford’s past without focusing too heavily on them.