Othello: The remix is an ad-rap-tation of the Shakesperian tragedy
Experience William Shakespeare’s most tortured and passionate protagonist in a way you’ve never experienced him before with Othello: The Remix on Sunday March 1 at Ductac.
An imaginative reworking of the Bard’s tragic tale of jealousy and revenge, this visually gritty production of the classic is rooted in the artistic traditions of American hip-hop. A lively and experimental take on the text, it has also been adapted to suit the cultural sensitivities of the Middle East.
Othello: The Remix doesn’t just translate Othello into hip-hop, but adapts the story to this music genre’s setting. The play is set against the backdrop of armed conflict with Othello, a general in the Venetian army, deployed by the Duke of Venice to defend their interests in Cyprus. ‘My first encounter with Shakespeare was pretty horrendous,’ says GQ, one half of Chicago’s Q Brothers, recalling his teen years struggling with a reading disability that hindered his enjoyment of the texts.
With brother JQ – the initials stand for Gregory and Jeffrey Qaiyum – GQ has spent much of the past 17 years reimagining the works of Shakespeare through a hip-hop lens, gaining international acclaim with The Bomb-Itty of Errors, Funk It Up About Nothin’ and their most recent ‘ad-rap-tation,’ Othello: The Remix. GQ’s opinion of the English scribe changed during his time at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, where he studied acting while pursuing a passion for rap. ‘At one point something clicked, and I was like, “Wow, this is music. These are musical notes,”’ GQ says. ‘That’s when they came together. Something about the inherent musicality of the language of Shakespeare felt so much like the rapping we were doing.’
At Tisch, GQ partnered with three classmates on a project that would become The Bomb-Itty of Errors. An Off Broadway success when it opened in 1999, Bomb-Itty earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for best lyrics and later toured the US and the UK.
JQ, who transferred to NYU from Hampshire College in Massachusetts, joined the Bomb-Itty team as a DJ before taking on a bigger creative role for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Funk It Up About Nothin’ in 2011. He composes all their music, working with his brother on lyrics. ‘It’s the best,’ JQ says of the partnership. ‘He’s like my best friend. We’re just doing what we would anyway, but we’re getting paid for it.’
The Chicago natives were asked to represent the US with an adaptation of Othello for London’s Cultural Olympiad in 2012. The production subsequently featured in Germany’s Shakespeare Festival in the Neuss Globe and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it was named best musical.
‘Our whole thing was, we’re going to take on something new and figure out how to keep our comedy throughout, but also how to not cheat the real heavy moments of Othello,’ GQ says.
The adaptation casts Othello as a rap king in the vein of Jay-Z, with Cassio as a Vanilla Ice-like performer who signs a record deal before the far more talented underground sensation Iago. Desdemona is an aristocrat’s daughter who follows the trio on tour despite her father’s orders – she’s loved Othello since his first mix-tape. ‘It has a darker tone,’ JQ says of Othello’s music. ‘There’s a lot more strings in the beats, a lot more minor keys. There was a lot of inspiration from horror movies.’
The hip-hop setting provides the ideal context for replaying Shakespeare’s darkest tale. For those unfamiliar with the classical text, this energetic production sees MC Othello getting out of the ghetto and going straight to the top of his field. He wins the respect of the music industry, the adulation of fans – but also the heart of the beautiful singer Desdemona. But as with all Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, his character suffers from a fatal flaw – he is attracted to the spite of hip-hop purist Iago, who has something more sinister planned for Othello than a rap battle.
‘Shakespeare was a master storyteller who used musical language and poetry to tell his stories, and these are at the forefront of our work. There’s no question that Shakespeare would be a rapper if he were alive today. It would be his form. The best rappers that we grew up listening to and still listen to are master storytellers who use poetry and musical language to tell their stories,’ says GQ.
This universal tale of passion, manipulation and tragedy is a not-to-be-missed experience for Shakespeare fans and a brilliant way to introduce the classical text to newcomers in a contemporary and memorable way. Dhs125-175. March 1, 7.30pm. Ductac, Mall of the Emirates, Al Barsha (04 304 2340).