To turn the script of Shakespeare's Othello – with its Elizabethan language, Venetian setting and highbrow reputation – into a 90-minute long series of hip-hop raps might sound like an impossible feat.
Othello in its original form is a tragedy about jealousy and betrayal. This remix by Chicago’s Q Brothers, performed as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, is more comedy than tragedy. Our hero is transformed from a general in the Venetian army into a hip-hop superstar, who tops the charts with his lyrical rhymes and wins the heart of the illustrious Desdemona.
But Othello’s supposed friend Iago plants the seeds of doubt in his mind about whether Desdemona and fellow rapper Cassio are more than just good friends.
True to the play’s origins, all five cast members are male. As they would have been in Shakespeare’s time, the female roles are hilariously acted out with the use of wigs and dresses. The Q Brothers invoke memories of when rappers took themselves less seriously than nowadays — remember those amusing Run DMC music videos?
They don’t look like your average hip-hop artists, but they certainly sound the part – think Will Smith in his rapping days meets Jay Z crossed with the Beastie Boys. The villain Iago has the same gravely voice as Eminen, with the same mad glint in his eye.
Rapping through a show to original beats mean the cast must be doubly careful to not miss a beat as well as not forget their lines. They succeeded – the Q Brothers delivered a slick show that will to lovers of Shakespeare and hip-hop fans alike, give a few laughs along the way.
Their approach not only makes Shakespeare much more accessible to a younger audience, but is also peppered with witty references that span the decades to connect with older audience members too.
For example, uber-nerd Roderego loves Desdemona so much he'd give up his action figure of Skeletor that is still in mint condition in the box for her – a nice reference for those of us old enough to remember the cartoon adventures of He-man and the Masters of the Universe – yet to bring things up-to-date we also hear that a video of an embrassing moment involving Cassio and Desdemona has gone viral and garnered 12 million YouTube hits.
"We love the Simpsons", Q Brother Jeffrey Quiyum tells the audience during a Q&A session after the show. "A two-year-old and a 65-year-old will laugh at the same episode for different reasons – it's the same with our show."
Shakespeare was the original lyricist who told his stories to the common people through poetry and musical language – so what else would he be if he were alive today but a hip-hop artist?
“Shakespeare would have climbed up on stage to rap alongside us”, says Postell Pringle, who plays Othello, when asked what he thought Shakespeare would have made of their show.
And I think he might well be right.