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.
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Click on the videos below to watch interviews with some of the audience members at the Globe:
Listen below to an interview with the producer and the Q Brothers, recorded by the Globe Education Department:
What others are saying about it: