Who could have imagined a successful marriage between Shakespeare and Hip Hop, let alone dared to create such a performance piece? Well that's just what the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre has done and over the next few days Melbourne audiences will have the opportunity of seeing Othello: The Remix at Melbourne's Arts Centre. If, like me, you've seen productions of Shakespeare that failed to hit the mark, be they traditional or contemporary, then rest assured this is not one of them.
The Q Brothers, known as America's leading re-interpreters of Shakespeare through hip-hop, have brought Shakespeare's tragic tale of love and jealousy, ambition and treachery, racism and murder, alive within the hip-hop world of the twenty-first century. No longer a hired general in the Venetian army, MC Othello has escaped the ghetto and reached the top of the music industry. A brilliant song writer, described as “the greatest poet of the century”. When he meets and falls in love with Desdemona “sweet and lily white”, he finds the voice that, combined with his music, makes him a star. But the “slimiest of snakes” lurks in the wings, the hip-hop purest Iago, who resents the fact that Othello favours Cassio who, in Iago's eyes, is “just a candy rapper”. As they set out on a tour for the record company, Iago plots the downfall of the hated “Moor”.
As in Shakespeare's day, all the roles are played by men. With a DJ (Clayton Stamper) set high on scaffolding at the back of the stage, the other four performers slip easily and seamlessly between each of the characters: Cassio, Emilia (Jackson Doran), Iago, Brabantio (GQ), Roderigo, Loco Vito, Bianca (JQ), and Othello (Postell Pringle). Dressed in blue boiler suits (with coloured coded Ts and shoe-laces) the addition of a cap, a beanie, a wig and dress (which hangs like an apron from the neck) they effectively and humourously transform before our eyes. The whole is set in a backstage. The cast are talented peformers; sassy and energetic.
Iago is wonderfully evil a true puppet-master, his psychological games messing with people's minds to get his way. Othello is strong and good, and this is his downfall. The women, Emelia and Bianca, provide moments of laugh out loud humour and Loco Vito the CEO of the record company, complete with his bandana and dark glasses, does the same with his constant tennis references: the current tour, he warns, will be hard work, “like beating Bjorn Borg, you know, in the 70s”. When bemoaning the death of Desdemona he describes her as “so perfect, like Sharapova on a clay surface”.
We never see Desdemona, we only hear her voice (Sophie Grimm) and it is beautiful and evocative. The scene where Othello smothers her really moving; I don't remember this scene ever causing me such a deep sense of pain and tragedy. We only see a trunk, a pillow and Othello but the words and music say it all. I felt with both characters which is saying something as I've always been more than a little ambivalent about the apparent sexism of the original, a sexism which is beautifully sent up by the performers in their hilarious version of It's a Man's World. Just seeing the five of them in outrageous wigs and apron-dresses was enough, but then there was their vocal abilities and the hilarious lyrics which included references to TV soaps, technology, and even Love's Labours Lost!
As we were told at the beginning, this story has both tragedy and comedy. The writers (CG and JQ) clearly know and respect hip-hop as deeply as they do Shakespeare. Othello: The Remix with its high energy, its humour and its Shakespearean and contemporary references, successfully captures and re-imagines the themes present in the original, opening them up in a way that brings Shakespeare to a new and younger audience in a way that Shakespeare himself would surely applaud.
There are still four shows to go so if you love Shakespeare and/or Hip Hop this is not to be missed.
Arts Centre Melbourne presents Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Richard Jordan Productions’
Othello: The Remix
Written, directed and music by GQ and JQ | Developed with Rick Boynton
Venue: The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 18 – 22 February, 2015
Tickets: $29 – $49