Hip Hop Othello by Q Brothers

Somewhere in the middle of the Q Brothers Othello it occurred to me that this may be the most truly ‘global’ offering in the Globe 2 Globe Festival.  Because its language, easily digestible hip-hop, comes from the global zone of corporate land, of those truly transnational entities like Shell, Coca Cola, and Apple.

Fun, likeable, witty, all of these will be the adjectives that come to mind in thinking about the production.  This might strike the theatrical spectator as a bit at odds with the play which in teaching I refer to as a new form of ‘revenge tragedy’ not because Spaniards go to lengths to avenge deaths, but because the playwright skewers the spectators who should, to use a contemporary notion, be dialling 911 long before Desdemona’s breath is stopped.  Loathe as I am to join in the too easy notion of all of us being complicit, in this play it seems clear that we [might] stand between a woman and disaster.

However, if you have no women, then the disaster rather than sinister, inevitable and quite truly breathtaking for the audience and the character, occurs in the strangest of lands, between one hammered out line and another.  And if Bianca and Emilia exist as a breathy Latin transvestite and a wooden , clueless valley girl, then we can get on with the global, commercial order.  Men donning bling, women cooing as they shake a booty to get some booty.

Let me return to what was obviously not my experience, the fun, likeable, witty part.  To have chosen hip hop as a language in a festival offering specific manifestations of language – Mexican Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese –  would imply hip hop as a ‘dialect’ of English, particularly US English.  Such a choice also has race embedded in it as surely as Swahili does.  The US has as varied a tradition of Shakespeare as its former sovereign country, young ex-colony that it is, it has offered all sorts of Shakespeare, from 19thcentury all Black troupes to the Wooster Group’s revelatory Hamlet.

Instead the odd choice of asking an English speaking country to send a play in ‘another language’ results in something I now do think having seen the production is a separate language.  I would call the safe and bland form of hip hop produced for the production an idiom of late capitalism.  Indeed I wonder whether the word ‘accessible’ in culture discussions of art and audience might not actually be replaced with the word ‘consumable.’  Because the theatre was packed, the three productions sold out.  People laughed and shouted and from the evidence of watching had a great time.

Me, I got bored.  And I am writing a musical and love to dance so you have to work to bore me.  I realized why Shakespeare varies his rhythms and suddenly smashes a couplet into a long stretch of blank verse – your ears wake up.  My ears went to sleep.  In part because they were lulled by a volume I am now wearily accustomed to in too many forms of performance, that of small mikes worn like Bluetooth telephones on the sides of actor’s faces.  These were pink and reminded me of nothing so much as acoustic pacifiers – for us? Or for the actors?  Maybe both.  What would this production have been like if The Globe had insisted on natural acoustics?  All the jumping, circling, adjusting of dicks, but with none of the ‘in-your-earpiece’ volume effect?  Now that would have been risky.

Hip Hop has a noble political tradition, but in this version of Othello it flattened into money, success and an exhausting insistence on heterosexuality that seemed particularly odd given the makeup of the quartet.  No risks were taken; the rhymes sometimes made ‘palpable hits’ with the language from the plays, but the stakes were miniscule, except for the dead [absent] women.  Desdemona’s standing comes from having ‘a lot of stuff’ and hierarchy exists only in that notorious world of short memory, the record executive’s office.  [A record executive obsessed with tennis so the rhymes can take chip shots, now that was truly without risk].

All sorts of choices might have disrupted the condescending inference that hip hop is a language: using nonsense words, really trying to go for a line by line translation, or simply upping the ante to make political commentary on the world we are in: for example, a President who has from the moment he lifted his hand and made an oath [an oath he had to repeat just in case anyone accused him of not really being President, of not really being American] became a catalyst for every racist fear, whose own name is so conveniently close to O-thell-o.

But the point is not what I might have wanted; the point is what I experienced.  I saw groups of school children no doubt taken to what would be accessible Shakespeare, consumable, turn your Globe cap around on your head backwards, grab your crotch and have a go.

Dr. P.A. Skanze 
Reader in Theatre and Performance Studies
Roehampton, London