Hip-hOpthello: Sydney Festival’s Othello: The Remix

I’ve never had the opportunity to study Othello, either at school or at university. In fact, my first knowledge of the play came when I saw the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged] (in which all thirty-seven plays are performed in ninety-seven minutes) when I was twelve. Apart from teaching myself Hamlet’s ‘To Be’ soliloquy backwards, and their glorious conflation of the Comedies, the only thing I remember from it is their Othello Rap. Enter, then, Sydney Festival’s presentation of Othello: The Remix, by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in an Australian exclusive. Not only is it, like the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s song, surprisingly accurate, but it too is enormous fun and is something of a masterstroke.

Originally premiering at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London as part of their Globe to Globe festival for the Cultural Olympiad, it is a very clever, fluid, and divertingly original Othello which defies categorisation. As audacious and unlikely a match Shakespeare’s language and the hip-hop style sounds on paper, the result is so thoroughly ‘now’ that the Shakespearean quotations sit effortlessly within the hip-hop landscape, seamlessly integrated. Why? Because the music propels the words along, creates a heartbeat pulse much like that contained within Shakespeare’s own iambic pentameter and verse, and in this case the rhythm of hip-hop is the iambic pentameter.
Billed by the show’s creators, the Q Brothers, as an “ad-rap-tation,” Othello: The Remix transports Shakespeare’s Venice to a contemporary urban tangle of industrial grunge and hip-hop records, where the leading label is the prestigious First Folio Records. Othello is their chart-topping lead artist, while Cassio is a “glitzy pop-music rapper,” and Iago is a “hardcore hip-hop purist.” Played by four men with music from a live DJ atop a scaffolding tower, the thrust stage in the Seymour Centre’s York Theatre is populated with a wheeled trunk, and several boxes. Wearing blue coveralls, the rappers – unintentionally nodding to 50 Cent, Eminem and Jay-Z – change characters with the help of assorted headgear (beanies, caps, wigs, bandanas), while the women are connoted with a simple dress-cum-apron slung around the neck.
Curiously, though, the one character who is physically absent from this Othello is Desdemona, the “Beyonce to Othello’s Jay-Z,” as Elissa Blake wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. While she is certainly heard providing vocals in many of Othello’s tunes, her absence allows for a touc of theatrical magic in the playing of her death, a beautifully and ingeniously executed moment physicalised by the four rappers. I’m sure there are no doubt countless psychoanalytical and theoretical readings of her absence, but it doesn’t detract from or leave the production wanting in any way. If anything, it only serves to focus the action squarely on Othello, and Iago’s skilful and heinous deception.
Saturated with unrelenting hip-hop tracks, Othello: The Remix is “innovative, intelligent and street smart,” and has more Shakespeare in it than you would perhaps expect. While overpoweringly loud at times, when the silence comes, it is well-earned and the production becomes all the more powerful for it. I reckon Shakespeare would be proud, and I don’t think there’s a higher compliment to give.

Theatre playlist: 5. Rap Othello, The Reduced Shakespeare Company

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