Showing at the Seymour Centre until 26 January

Reviewed by University of Sydney student Ben Ferris (PhD in Classics)

Within the first five minutes of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s (CST’s) high intensity “ad-RAP-tation” of Shakespeare’s Othello, the four performer-rappers had the entire audience of the Seymour Centre’s York Theatre with “their hands up in the air”.

These four performers, among them the Q Brothers (known as GQ & JQ) who devised the show, are ON from the first moment and maintain a cracking pace of hip-hoppin’ couplets for an exhilarating, jam-packed, super fly, beats droppin’ 80 minutes. The men, dressed in simple jumpsuits, and with the minor additions of a red sparkling cap here or a pink wig there, switch effortlessly between all the roles in the play, including, to hilarious effect, those of the women, a fact which felt surprisingly Elizabethan in spite of the contemporary context.

MC Othello (charismatically played by actor Postell Pringle) emerges from a New York ghetto and goes straight to the T-O-P on the back of his hip-hop talents. He falls swiftly for “Des” (i.e. Desdemona, voiced not seen) when he hears her smooth sounds as a backing vocalist on one of his tracks. “I-hate-the-Moor” Iago (superbly played by GQ), bitter at playing the support act for the support act, Cassio (Jackson Doran), contrives (of course!) to bring about the downfall of both Othello and Cassio so that he himself can get to the TOP. The result is surprisingly close to the original play, including a string of disasters, the death of innocents and the tragic murder of Des at the hands of Othello, driven mad with jealousy.

The murder of Des is poignantly captured in a scene staged simply and cleverly with a single pillow on a trolley suggesting the bedroom. As Othello smothers an imaginary Desdemona with the pillow (amusingly to the refrains of “you made your bed, now sleep in it”) the soundtrack switches from loud to muffled, thereby sucking us into Desdemona’s point of view, as though we too are being smothered.

But the power of the production rests, as is entirely fitting for a rendition of Shakespeare, or, equally so, for a hip-hop track, with the words. Crisply delivered, every word audible, and sensitively performed by the cast, pearlers come thick and fast, often to spontaneous applause from members of the audience. Especially those spoken by Loco Vito (played by JQ), CEO of First Folio Records, who has an unfortunate and unremitting penchant for bad tennis metaphors (“don’t be agro…like John McEnroe”).

When “Desdemona” rhymes with “bone her” the great Bard might indeed turn in his grave. But, with solid beats and wicked rhyming couplets being spun overhead, frankly who could blame him?

Othello: The Remix
By Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
The York Theatre, Seymour Centre
23-26 January