Sunday, January 26, 2014

Othello: the Remix by GQ and JQ

L to R: Jackson Doran, GQ, Postell Pringle, JQ
Photo: Michael Brosilow

Othello: the Remix written, directed and music by GQ and JQ.  Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Richard Jordan Productions for Sydney Festival at York Theatre, Seymour Centre, University of Sydney, January 9-26, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 26

Othello always seemed to me to be the least satisfactory of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  Either the play should end as Othello rises, horrified at what he has just done in smothering Desdemona; or he should face justice.

But Shakespeare lets him go.  However much he admits his failing, he is not brought to book.

This Chicago rap music version fails to resolve this issue for me.  I think, for modern times, justice should be done – not only to Iago, the leader parallel to those in Serbia in the Kosovo conflict; but because regardless of his being duped, Othello killed Desdemona.

Dramatically, the stronger ending – and it was a very strong point in this version – is as Desdemona dies.  We all know by then that all the women are innocent, while only men are the killers.  Why Shakespeare felt the need to have Emilia knock on the bedroom door, giving Othello the opportunity to explain himself and for the play to fiddle about with the details of Iago’s perfidy being told to us again, I don’t know.

But we end up forgetting Desdemona!

The long pause after her death said to me that the Chicago team clearly felt the problem, but then decided to stay true to Shakespeare.  The message of the play was shot into our hearts by Desdemona as she died, even when, in this all male cast, she was no more than a fabulous singing voice and a flattened pillow.  I’m sure a modern audience, tuned into the rapid niceties of the language of rap, would need no more.

On the issue of should we modernise Shakespeare, I must say that this is the most successful attempt I have seen.  The rap scene, with its misogyny, drug dealing and anti-social attitudes among the worst of its practitioners is cleverly turned on its head through the very movement style, rhyming, timing and humour that is rap’s signature.

Photos: Prudence Upton

The performances are absolutely tight, even including the highlighted DJ.  Though I’d just like to tweak Shakespeare at the end, the final spotlight on a silent Othello gave us a clear focus to this version’s conclusion.

I had wondered, being rather older than the rap scene myself, how I would cope with this update, but it was less pretentious than Steven Berkoff’s Cockney “rap” and definitely never as sentimental as West Side Story

I can’t judge how the rappers of Chicago might respond, but I found it very interesting, fast, loud and surprisingly funny.  A success, in other words.

Postell Pringle (Othello) and GQ (Iago)
Photo: Michael Brosilow

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