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Auckland Arts Festival: Othello: The Remix - review

Auckland Arts Festival: Othello: The Remix - review

Mar 15, 2015 Art city

At the Globe Theatre’s Cultural Olympiad in 2012, opened by the magnificent Maori Troilus and Cressida, Othello: The Remix was Team USA’s entry, representing a Shakespeare play translated into the language of American hip-hop. But is this really Shakespeare? I’m inclined to say no. Sure, the most memorable line from high school English sneaks in, “the beast with two backs”, but otherwise there is very little text by the bard.

Do I miss the original verse? Heck no. Shakespeare, rabid plagiarist as he was, adapted his Othello from other sources, translating the story into stage iambic with a touch of his own unique genius. And this is exactly what this Chicago company do, remixing the story about “a man who gets jealous” into the metre of rap, and adding their own impressive genius. This is the Q Brother’s Othello. Purists gonna hate, but I loved, loved, loved it.

MC Othello (Postell Pringle) is a Jay Z figure who has risen to the top of the music industry. Iago (GQ) wants to bring him down. Jackson Doran and JC play the rest of the roles, and all four frequently step out of character to rap plot points for our benefit. It’s a testosterone charged affair, Doran and JC do some hilarious female impersonation as Emilia and Bianca respectively, but Desdemona is a disembodied voice which fills the auditorium with the exquisite trills of Sophie Grimm.

Typical of Shakespearean productions, it is Iago who owns this show. Describing himself as half man, half beastie-boy, and channelling the grunt and rage of Eminem at his finest, GQ’s Iago is formidable. While scholars endlessly debate Iago’s motiveless malignancy, here his motivation for why he hates the moor is very clear. He’s the opener for the opening act in Othello’s headlining concert tour. Doran’s Cassio, a douchey pop cross-over has been shoulder tapped ahead of him, and this is unforgivable.

While Shakespeare ties himself up in knots to make Othello’s ocular proof fly, here Othello’s onset of jealousy is incredibly clear and believable. The Q Brothers exchange Shakespeare’s handkerchief for some bling, and it is the sight of this, along with some loaded suggestions from Iago, that sends Othello down his spiral. This is I think the production’s greatest achievement. Whereas we can be historically distanced from the domestic violence in Shakespeare, Othello’s descent hits with full shocking force.

What’s surprising is how this crew, known for their hip hop adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedies, really make the tragedy work. While you could label much of it a spoof, they know when to treat things seriously. We don’t really get to see what makes Pringle’s Othello such a great artist until the very end, when he assumes as much gravitas as a classical actor. Heightened by the beat, his murder of Desdemona is horrific, Desdemona’s voice flicking on and off as Othello smothers her with a pillow. Despite not seeing any body, you will really feel this moment.

The major element they do largely jettison is innuendo around Othello’s race, and Iago refrains from attacking Othello on this basis. For an industry where issues of race and appropriation remain volatile (hello Iggy Azalea), this sort of commentary could have taken on a potent contemporary face. It is the usually out of touch Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, who briefly worries about the cultural messages of the hip hop genre, particularly its misogyny. The Q Brothers however want to celebrate rather than critique their chosen art form. The vaguely mid-90s sound and jumpsuit look gives this a nostalgic vibe of a golden age of Hip-Hop.

The stage DJ, Clayton Stamper, sets a sick beat, and helps push the show through a fast paced 1 hour 20 minutes. It gets your head tapping, and the Takapuna crowd really got into it, even if it was a little awkward watching everyone try to follow along with the instruction to “throw your hands up”. Hopefully some of the Q Brother’s coolness rubbed on off us by the end of the night. Othello: The Remix is catchy, clever, and fresh. As MC Shakespeare would say, the show beith dope.

Othello The Remix: Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna, until March 16 and Vodafone Events Centre, Manukau, March 18. aucklandfestival.co.nz

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