Year of Shakespeare: Othello

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

 

Othello: The Remix, Q Brothers and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, dir. GQ and JQ, 5 May 2012 at The Globe, London.

By Erin Sullivan, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham

When the Globe announced its 37 Plays, 37 Languages season, the inclusion of the Chicago Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix in the ‘language’ of hip hop was bound to raise a few eyebrows. A culture, a lifestyle, a musical and artistic form, hip hop may perhaps be a kind of dialect, as one friend suggested to me, but lined up as it is alongside Juba Arabic, Cantonese, Polish, and Bangla there is an implication of foreignness that is, at least theoretically, provocative.

I say ‘theoretically’ because in the practical realms of ticket sales and audience reaction Othello: The Remix has so far proved to be one of the Globe to Globe Festival’s greatest successes. With three showings, as opposed to most productions’ two, it was nevertheless the first billing in the Festival to sell out, meaning that more than 4,500 people will see the Q Brothers’ modern take on Shakespeare’s tragedy this weekend. And judging by the boisterous, ecstatic audience response I witnessed at the opening matinee performance, both in the theatre and afterwards online (the words of one Tweeter: ‘Holy crap Othello @The_Globe is not just one of the best Othellos I’ve seen but one of the best Shakespeares I’ve seen’), it is likely to be a strong contender for popular favorite in the Festival as a whole.

In terms of plot, Othello: The Remix is remarkably comprehensive, condensing down but rarely cutting narrative detail from its Shakespearean source to a running time (including interval) of 90 minutes. Set in present-day America, it features four actor-MCs and one DJ who together tell the story of Othello (played by Postell Pringle), the ‘reigning King of Hip Hop’, who wins the love of Desdemona, a sheltered, gated community white girl, through the magic of his mixtapes. In the style of late 90s teen films based on Shakespeare’s plays (think 10 Things I Hate about You), characters from the original become jokey pop culture stereotypes, with Roderigo (played by JQ) appearing as a gamer nerd, Bianca (JQ again) an obsessive groupie, Brabantio an uptight suburban dad (GQ), and ‘Loco Vito’ (JQ one more time) a gangsta record exec with a bizarre yet amusing predilection for tennis-based analogies. Cassio (Jackson Doran) becomes a pop rapper who writes lame, commercial rap songs ‘for teenage white chicks’, while Iago (GQ) presents himself as an ‘authentic’ MC who has fought ‘battle after battle’ on the freestyle stage, only to be overlooked at the crucial moment. ‘He never lets me get my foot in the door’, we are told, ‘And this is why I hate the Moor’.

As with the Caesar-less Julius Caesar which had its turn on the Globe stage just a few days earlier, one of the most striking features of this production is the absence of a key player, in this case Desdemona. The Q Brothers’ company of five is made up entirely of men, meaning that Bianca and Emilia are both played in drag (by JQ and Doran, respectively), while Desdemona appears only as an ethereal, trilling voice that echoes down from the Globe’s speaker-laden rafters. While the choice many well have been pragmatic (looking at material about the Q Brothers’ other projects, it seems that they always work with a small, all-male cast), the implications both for the play and for the depiction of hip hop are significant. For much of the production, women are presented as either highly burlesqued, sex-obsessed beings, or as angelic non-entities, driving the plot of the play without ever really being a part of it. Both Othello and hip hop become zones for male identity formation, although Doran’s insecure Emilia does finally rise beyond a caricature of female sexual frustration in the second half of the production when all four actors don wigs and dresses to give a sassy, Glee-esque rendition of ‘It’s a Man’s World’, which garnered the biggest, most enthusiastic crowd reaction of the afternoon.

The other standout number for me was Othello’s love duet with Desdemona, inserted (rather interestingly) in the same space as the love duet in Verdi’s Otello (perhaps a sign that audiences want, even need, to witness something more private and intimate between the two lovers here?). In this tender moment Pringle offers us a thoughtful, emotionally deep Othello, while simultaneously showing off his sonorous flow in a piece that draws as much on fellow Chicago-based rapper Common’s ‘The Light’ as anything in Shakespeare’s text. The Q Brothers themselves demonstrate impressive versatility as performers as they move between a half dozen different characters, with their steady beats and clever rhymes (Iago: ‘I’m messin with his mind, I’m alterin his ego’) keeping the pace up and the attention to detail strong.

There’s no doubt that this is a hugely entertaining production, and it’s also not without its own insights into questions about the intersection of race, identity, language, and culture. Even more emphasis on these issues would have pleased me – while Othello addresses feelings of cultural exclusion at the very end (‘I am an alien lookin for a home not an earthling lookin for escape’), I wondered if more could have been made of this throughout, as well as of Bianca’s Latina identity, which ultimately is used for laughs. Still, walking out of the theatre, it was clear that many members of the noticeably youthful audience had thoroughly enjoyed this production which, as opposed to the other ‘foreign’ offerings in the Globe to Globe Festival, worked to make Shakespeare – something increasingly alien to many audiences – more familiar, rather than something supposedly familiar more foreign.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!

 

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Want to watch this production online? Click on the image below to watch it for free at THE SPACE:

Click on the videos below to watch interviews with some of the audience members at the Globe:

Othello 1 from Shakespeare Institute on Vimeo.

Othello 2 from Shakespeare Institute on Vimeo.

 

Listen below to an interview with the producer and the Q Brothers, recorded by the Globe Education Department:

 

What others are saying about it:

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Author:Erin Sullivan

Erin Sullivan is Lecturer and Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. In 2012 she led the project www.yearofshakespeare.com, which has led to two publications with the Arden Shakespeare series: A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival (2013) and Shakespeare on the Global Stage: Performance and Festivity in the Olympic Year (2014). Her research is now turning to the use of digital technologies in the production and reception of Shakespearean performance. You can follow Erin on Twitter @_erinsullivan_
  • bprottey

    Having read countless reviews and online responses through blogs and Twitter to create the Storify feed you see above, I was compelled to watch it online at The Space. It did NOT disappoint! The Q Brothers managed to engage me through a computer screen, so the atmosphere at The Globe must have been brilliant.I had never read Othello before so I was going into this relying only on a vague idea that it was about jealousy. I think this performance succeeded in bringing me up to speed and I feel like it was an excellent introduction to the text. The character of Iago was played particularly well in my opinion, and the hints of green in his costuming and his sly, manipulative asides to the audience created a very snake-like feel to the character.

    I hadn’t considered the impact of an all-male cast whilst watching this performance, so it has been interesting to see the questions raised online. I thought the Q Brothers achieved a funny and cliched portrayal of certain ‘stock characters’ such as the passionate Hispanic woman that is frequently used in popular culture, but as yet I’m still undecided as to whether this was ironic or unintentional. Regardless, this was a thoroughly enjoyable performance, and I would be keen to see any future interpretations of Shakespeare’s works in this style.

  • Silke

    I just saw the show in the Globe in Neuss, Germany…with my mom, lol. We both loved it! Totally surprising (to me) because we were two of those curious-but-reserved-about-hiphop people in the audience… There were quite a few of us and we all cheered by the end. The energy of the crew simply swept us away like a wave. :) Not only an introduction to Shakespeare for some but also an introduction to rap for the rest of us doubters. Very, very cool.

    Actually…I hope I can find some of the music out there some day. Got a few rhymes stuck in my head. :)

  • http://twitter.com/_erinsullivan_ Erin Sullivan

    Hi Jackson, thanks so much for joining the conversation. I think the point you make about unreservedly going for something is an important one – in plays as loaded and meaning laden as Shakespeare’s there’s got to be space for experimentation, interpolation, provocation.

    The Globe is such an interesting space – I’ve seen some of the most historically-minded, original practice productions there, as well as some of the most irreverent, adaptive ones. In my experience it works best when the performers are open to / interested in working the audience, and this is something that Othello: The Remix did with gusto and flair. I loved the energy with which you guys filled the space – I was in the top gallery but I didn’t feel distant from the performance at all.

    What was it like for you guys to perform there, in terms of space and audience? Have you done Othello: The Remix in any other spaces yet?

  • Doran Jackson

    Erin, what a beautifully crafted and insightful article.  Many of the points you have made I too have wondered about and discussed throughout the truncated development process we had to make the piece (truncation being responsible for some of the artistic choices finally agreed upon in my opinion.)  The Q’s for me tow the line between deceptively complex, serious art and pure entertainment without commercialism being a high priority for their artistic pursuits.  Their band gives away all of their music for free.  I am amazed and so grateful such brash and hedonistic edge-livers as I know them to be were given a chance to share their art on such a prestigious stage.  Such risk would be daunting and petrifying to even the most accomplished storytellers in the American world of Hip-Hop theater and I think their success this past week could only have been achieved by people who have no reservations throwing themselves into the fray as they truly are and unapologetically not pretending to be something they are not.  Thank you for seeing the piece and thinking about it in a way I think it needs to be thought about.  Have fun seeing the other plays and stay in touch.  

    -Jackson Doran doran.jackson@gmail.com

  • http://twitter.com/_erinsullivan_ Erin Sullivan

    Hi Humphrey, thanks for your comment – yes I agree with your point about making space for new audiences. Before I went to the show I was discussing the question of the ‘language’ of hip hop with some friends online. They’ve given me permission to post their thoughts below, which I found really helpful and interesting when thinking through my response to the production…

    Erin Sullivan Is hip hop its own language? Is hip hop a foreign language? Off to Q bros Othello @The_Globe, please share your thoughts. #g2g Saturday at 12:31pm via Twitter

    Pete Orford Hip hop is the latest in a long list of modern-day cultural media that people use to compare/popularise Shakespeare (I’ve still yet to hear someone say “If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing video games”, but it’s only a matter of time). After all the theorising, it
    will be interesting to see in this production if Shakespeare and hiphop can compliment one another in practice.Saturday at 1:08pm

    Eoin Price Hip hop, as I understand it, refers as much to a sort of culture as to a kind of language, e.g. rapping, DJing, dancing etc. It’s taken on all sorts of changes and associations though and has become quite diverse. The issue of whether it is ‘foreign’ is also interesting: to whom is it foreign? Are there different kinds of variety of hip hop language, e.g. US vs British? (and I’m sure loads of other countries – France, I think, has a big hip hop scene).Saturday at 2:22pm

    Nnenna Ukwu I see hip hop more as a dialect.Saturday at 2:37pm

    Pete Orford I think another problem is that hip hop is often appropriated as a lazy reference, so we frequently see a stereotype of hiphop culture (guns, drugs, bling). It’d be like an ‘English’ production where everyone drinks tea, plays cricket and wears bowler hats.Saturday at 2:47pm

    Nnenna Ukwu ‎….and as a culture.Saturday at 2:58pm ·

    Erin Sullivan Just out of the show, some really interesting things to think about. Audience reaction extremely positive, especially from the school kids I spoke to. No female players, which is provocative in terms of othello as a play, hip hop as a culture and form, and shakespearian staging as a set of theatrical practices.Saturday at 4:48pm

  • http://44calibreshakespeare.com Humphrey

    Hmmm… sounds supiciously like it has been trans-mutated into very commercial hip-hop. But Shakespeare enjoyed a lot is Shakespeare done well. Anything that draws in new followers is A-OK with me! Big up Chicago Shakespeare nuff respec

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