If music be the food of love, play on,” wrote Shakespeare in his play Twelfth Night.

The Bard was a huge music-lover, and his plays sparkle with references to popular tunes of the day. Many of those tunes, however, have been lost or forgotten. Until that is, a group of erudite Oxford musicians clubbed together to bring them back to life.

The Food of Love Project saw local bands and artists taking pop songs of the era – which either feature, or are alluded to, in Shakespeare’s plays – and serving them up to a new audience in fresh interpretations while still faithful to the originals.

The project, commissioned by Tom McDonnell of Oxford’s cinematic, Arabic jazz‘Turkobilly’ band Brickwork Lizards, was a highlight of the Oxford Shakespeare Jubilee 2016 which celebrated the playwright’s legacy on the 400th anniversary of his death.

Two years on, Tom and some of the artists involved in the project and the resulting album, are convening at the Old Fire Station in Oxford to play tunes from the record.

The show, next Friday, features Brickwork Lizards, Joe Swarbrick of the band Borderville, Flights of Helios and The Children of the Midnight Chimes – Tom’s side project with multi-instrumentalist and composer Sebastian Reynolds. Together they will perform a clutch of dark, racy and in some cases downright macabre songs from the 17th century

It will also see Oxford University Philosophy professor Paul Lodge presenting a selection of tunes from Shakespeare in the Alley, a cycle of songs written with his brother Richard in response to Shakespeare’s plays.

The songs take words and phrases from Shakespeare and reflect on his characters and themes to create what Paul describes as “a humble homage that aims to capture some of the atmosphere and genius of the original works”.

Tom, a Shakespeare expert and qualified Oxford tour guide who sings and raps under the moniker Tom O’Hawk, initially assembled musicians for Food of Love for concerts at Oxford’s St John the Evangelist Church, the historic St Giles without Cripplegate in London and in Shakespeare’s resting place – Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

“This should be a really fun night,” he says. “The first act will see us playing songs written during or before Shakespeare’s lifetime which are mentioned or performed in his plays.

Oxford Mail:

Paul Lodge

“They are modern interpretations by bands you wouldn’t expect to be playing Shakespearean songs, but are still true to the originals. We haven’t changed any of the lyrics.”

Songs include Fortune My Foe, mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor and performed by Tom’s Brickwork Lizards.

“The song was the most popular ballad of the 17th century,” says Tom. “It was also called The Hanging Tune as it is the song crowds would sing at Tyburn when they gathered to watch an execution.”

They also include the Gravediggers Song from Hamlet – I Loathe That I Did Love – and Oh Death Rock Me Asleep, which is referenced in Henry IV Part 2 and was allegedly written by Ann Boleyn while waiting for her execution in the Tower of London.

Joe Swarbrick, a drama teacher at Oxford’s d’Overbroeck’s School, will perform his interpretations of three classics from Twelfth night: Hey Ho, Oh Mistress Mine and Come Away Death.

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“There are some grim themes,” says Tom sombrely. “But then going for a show at the Globe Theatre was a naughty night out. There were human heads hanging off London Bridge and brawling and prostitution on the South Bank. The songs reflect those times. It won’t be quite like that at our show, though.”

The night came about when Prof Lodge set about finding fellow Bard fans for the OFS show, initially getting in touch with Sebastian Reynolds – whose credits also include The Epstein, The Evenings and Keyboard Choir as well as Flights of Helios, Sexy Breakfast (alongside Joe Swarbrick) and his own Asian-influenced Mahajanaka project.

Tom says: “I hope it will appeal to Shakespeare fans as well as audience members who might not be that into Shakespeare, as it gives people a new perspective on the songs that were popular at the time and how they were performed.

Oxford Mail:

Joe Swarbrick

“Anyone curious about the music of the time will find it interesting.”

It also gives fans a chance to catch some of the city’s finest artists doing something completely different, with a mix of authentic 17th century and contemporary instruments.

“We’ll have mandolin bass, an Arabic oud and, of course, Seb will be bringing his laptop!

"It will be an exciting night!”

  • Paul Lodge & The Food Of Love Project play the Old Fire Station, Oxford, on Friday, January 18.
  • Tickets from oldfirestation.org.uk