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Songs in Shakespeare are generally assigned to marginal characters, the types who flit around the edge of the action, like the wise fool Feste in Twelfth Night or Hamlet’s Ophelia. When the musician Balthasar breaks into song in Much Ado About Nothing, he does so apologetically: “Note this before my notes: there’s not a note of mine worth the noting.”
Which brings us to Róisín Murphy. This week she became the first pop singer to play a gig at the Shakespeare’s Globe, the reconstructed Elizabethan stage usually reserved for Shakespeare revivals. Her entrance — wearing a Tudor ruff and peaked hat, a large gold key hanging around her neck, feinting a stagger in the style of the bawdy rogues who also sing songs in Shakespeare plays — showed that the occasion was not lost on her.
Murphy belongs to pop’s antic fringes. She has a sizeable cult following but has never consummated her flirtations with wider popularity, apart from a brief period of chart success when she was in the duo Moloko. The opening number “Mastermind” was from her new album Take Her up to Monto, the follow-up to 2015’s Hairless Toys, which broke an eight-year pause in solo recordings.
During the course of the song — a coolly rippling electropop number played by a backing quartet — the Irish singer rummaged through a pile of outfits on the floor, variously adopting a jester’s hat, police cap and tight-fitting Jacobean headpiece. These impromptu costume changes recurred throughout the set, extending to full-on fancy dress for “Overpowered”, which she sang in a silver harlequin suit, and “Ten Miles High”, performed in the guise of a construction worker.
The latter song, about the skyscrapers vaunting up around her adopted city of London, was punctuated by the “To be or not to be” monologue and contained a spot-on vocal impersonation of Murphy’s idol, Grace Jones. But such acts of whimsy unfolded within a sophisticated musical framework, a dynamic mix of disco, funk, cabaret and art-pop. Murphy was magnetic at the centre of it, voice going from torchy crooning to strident ejaculations, performing dance routines with a mummer’s relish. The Globe’s debut pop show was worth the noting.