Othello: The Remix, The Globe, 6 May 2012
A lot of theatre companies performing at Globe to Globe have presented brave reworkings of Shakespeare plays.
But none was braver than the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s / Richard Jordan Productions / Q Brothers version of Othello set within the world of rap music.
The synopsis handed out to the audience read like a purist’s nightmare.
“Othello, reigning King of Hip Hop, has married Desdemona, whose soulful singing voice has helped propel him to the top of the charts. Loco Vito, CEO of First Folio Records, sends Othello, his bride, and his crew on a national tour, while Iago’s bitter schemes divide nerd from cash, rapper from crew, and husband from wife.”
The curtains across the tiring house doorways had been graffitied over, as had the bottom of the back wall. As the audience entered, a DJ (Clayton Stamper) played music which boomed out from speakers on the stage.
The story was told in rap, something explained in a brief rap prologue in which the four performers set out how they were putting Othello into their idiom. After all, Shakespeare himself had adapted plots from other sources. Therefore their rap version was fair play.
We were introduced to Othello, the King of Hip Hop, played by Postell Pringle. He had risen to stardom and had found inspiration from another singer, the lovely Desdemona. Desdemona was never seen on stage, she existed purely as a voice that played out from the upper gallery.
The Q Brothers took five roles between them: JQ as Roderigo, Loco Vito (CEO of First Folio Records) and Bianca; GQ as Iago and Brabantio. Jackson Doran played Cassio and Emilia. Hats and wigs were used to effect quick costume changes.
Brabantio reluctantly accepted Othello’s relationship with his daughter Desdemona, though his racism was shown when in a rap couplet he ended one line with “bigger” leaving the second incomplete as he said she shouldn’t really go out with “that ….”. Othello gave Desdemona a valuable and unique gold chain as a love token.
Label boss Loco Vito organised a national tour for main star Othello, teen idol Cassio and hardcore rapper Iago, with Iago relegated to being the “opener’s opener”. This was the source of his jealousy and the reason he “hated the Moor”.
Roderigo, in glasses and beanie, was a sci-fi nerd in love with Desdemona. Iago saw his chance to make money out of him by convincing Roderigo to sell his collection of memorabilia in order to shower Desdemona with expensive gifts. Though he had to explain to Roderigo why the classy singer would not be impressed by a 20-sided RPG die. Iago promised Roderigo that he and Desdemona would soon be making the beast with two backs.
Once on tour, clean-living Cassio had to be calmed down by Othello after drinking too much caffeine, but not before attracting the attention of Latina groupie Bianca, played hilariously by JG in a pink wig and exaggerated accent.
All the while Iago was weaselling his way into Othello’s trust. He convinced Roderigo that Cassio was his rival for Desdemona’s affections. Iago planned to spike Cassio’s drink at a tour party in the hope that his resulting behaviour would tarnish his reputation.
Cassio was given something whose effects were very similar to LSD. As the drug took hold, he stared at his hand, while both the music and the other characters’ movements distorted. Cassio ran wild, reportedly being sick all over the mayor of Chicago’s wife. Othello sacked Cassio from the tour. Continuing his scheme, Iago suggested that Cassio get Desdemona to plead for him.
In the equivalent of 3.3, Iago very cleverly seeded the idea that Cassio might be having an affair with Desdemona, based on the fact that he and Desdemona went to school together and it had been Cassio who had first introduced her to Othello.
Emilia (brunette wig and dress pinned on Jackson Doran) showed Iago the gold chain she had found and her husband instantly took it to plant in Cassio’s room.
Iago told Othello that he had taken Cassio back to his room drunk and that he had babbled about his affair with Desdemona. But Othello wanted proof, not reported rumour.
Having found the chain, Cassio asked Emilia to get a copy made.
The first half of the performance ended with Iago rapping about how he was the puppet master of Othello, Cassio and Roderigo, who lumbered around like puppets before disappearing off stage.
After the interval the second half began with a quick recap.
Iago arranged for Othello to see Cassio handing the chain over to Bianca, after which Othello angrily ordered Iago to kill Cassio.
Loco Vito offered Othello a management job on an important new project and reinstated Cassio. The YouTube video of him being sick over the mayor’s wife had made him an online sensation. They all witnessed Othello strike Desdemona, which had Postell simply strike in mid-air at her invisible presence.
The bonding between Emilia and Desdemona became here a version “It’s a Man’s World” in which all four men donned wigs and sang.
The fighting began (with invisible weapons) as Roderigo attacked Cassio with a small knife. “That’s not a knife. This is a knife”, said Cassio in the words of Crocodile Dundee, avenging the slight cut with a stab to Roderigo’s stomach.
Iago tried to hit Cassio with a large piece of wood, but only managed to strike him on the leg. He also finished off Roderigo to prevent him spilling the beans.
In the final scene, a large wheeled cabinet was brought centre stage for Desdemona’s bed and a white pillow was placed at its head representing Desdemona herself.
With the others circled round intoning “You made your bed. Now lie in it”, Othello smothered the cushion, causing the sound of Desdemona’s voice to be muffled with each downward thrust.
Emilia discovered the scene. When the others were attracted by her cries, the whole truth of Iago’s deception was revealed, causing him to stab Emilia.
Othello realised he had been deceived: “I can see that I’m the real culprit. I shouldn’t have believed Iago’s bullshit”.
Thus far the performance had been fun, irreverent and light-hearted. But the key scenes in which Iago had manipulated Othello had been played sincerely. Recognising their importance in the play, the rap version had maintained the psychological realism of Othello’s jealousy. Reference was made to the “green eyes” of jealousy creating a link back to the original play. Othello’s predicament was also described as “Love’s labour’s lost”.
The thread of earnestness woven through the comedy and cross-dressing meant that when Othello took his cap, placed it on the ground, crouched and punched it in symbolic suicide, the entire theatre hushed as the tragedy reached its conclusion.
The angry but still figure of Othello, his fist frozen where it had connected with the stage, was a very effective visual metaphor for the character’s self-destructive frustration, as well as a more memorable image than a naturalistic cut of a blade.
Is Hip Hop a language? Not really. The lyrics were all in perfectly comprehensible colloquial American English. But nobody seemed to object to this remix being included as part of Globe to Globe.