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Othello: The Remix, Unicorn Theatre – Review

Written, directed and music by GQ and JQ

Developed with Rick Boynton
★★★★
Pros: Fun, invigorating storytelling. Quite simply, ya gotta go!
Cons: May be difficult for those who are cynical about adapting Shakespeare. 
Our Verdict: Kick that cynicism out the door. Shakespeare would want you to.
Credit: Michael  Brosilow

Those theatre snobs who deem it sacrilege to stray from good ol’ Will’s classic text would do well to remember that Shakespeare based his famous tragedy on the Italian writer Cinthio‘s tale Un Capitano Moro, written in 1565, a good eighteen years before the Bard put quill to parchment. Thankfully everyone seems on board with this interpretation from Chicago Shakespeare Theater

I was dubious about reviewing this production for other reasons. I usually steer well clear of musical adaptations of plays or movies of any kind. However, to put it plainly, this show knocked my socks off. It condenses the tragedy of the titular Moor into a seventy minute non- stop Hip Hop fest. The four male actors on stage play numerous roles, male and female and rap their way through the story with a continuous play on words and double meanings that is a trademark of both Hip Hop and Shakespeare.
Everything Theatre picked up on this unique production back in 2012 when it came to the Globe as part of the hugely successful Globe to Globe season. So it gives us particular joy to see it still going strong and back in London.
The Q Brothers have updated the text into a modern day tale of rapper and MC extraordinaire Othello and his up and coming protégée Cassio, who fellow rapper Iago vows to destroy. It is all super to watch. The square raised platform which serves as the stage looks more like the interior of a dancehall nightclub than Shakespeare’s Venice, helped by the DJ on turntables on a catwalk a few meters above. The original lyrics are rapped and spoken over original beats. Sure they are clever, witty, sophisticated and very ‘now’ but the impressive feat is that they share Shakespeare’s rhythm and rhyme.
The show never strays from Othello’s major themes, that of lust, betrayal and jealousy. The four actors are all very talented rappers and even better actors. The whole act of theatregoing requires a constant suspension of belief and I have never been to a show where it was so easy to accomplish this. When playing the female characters’ the actors make no pretence of trying to disguise their maleness and instead revel in silly wigs, silly dresses and silly women’s voices. However, in the context of the whole production, it works! In addition, the pure pace of the show negates the need to physically portray all the characters with 100% believability.
All props and set pieces are onstage for the entire duration and are used to great effect. The large graffiti trunk on wheels which serves as Desdemona’s death bed is the centrepiece of the minimal set. Speaking of Desdemona’s death, this is possibly the most theatrical and arresting death scene I have ever seen in a production of Othello – and I’ve seen loads. This one will stay with me for a long time.
The replacement of Desdemona’s hanky by an oversized ghetto gold necklace is a cliché of the Hip Hop world but visually it makes for interesting theatre. The jewellery glitters and glints when the actors hold it up for us to see. However it is a bit too gaudy to imagine Othello’s mother gifting it to him to gift to his wife as in Shakespeare’s text; thus it loses its status as a sweet memento and symbol of Othello’s pledge to forever love his wife.
Desdemona is the only character not played by the actors, and is instead an off stage presence, constantly singing to Othello. Her vocal presence is used to great effect in the final act. I was a little annoyed by the rest of the audience applauding after the death scene. I can understand needing a release after the scary scene, however for me it ruined the moment. This scene is the centrepiece of the play but due to the applause the scene concluded immediately even though we needed it to linger for a few moments more.
I also want to point out that I think the style of hip hop and rhymes owes a lot more to the Beastie Boys than the modern day hip hop world. This is rather a difficult show to review. There is so much going on here that any description of it would really spoil it for those of you who want to see it.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Othello: The Remix is running at the Unicorn Theatre until 29 September, 2013
Box office: 020 7645 0560 or book online at http://www.unicorntheatre.com/whatson/12/more-dates 

About Everything Theatre

Everything Theatre
Founded in 2011, Everything Theatre started life as a pokey blog run by two theatre enthusiasts and – thanks to the Entry Pass Scheme for 16-25 year olds – regular National Theatre goers. Today, we are run by part-time volunteers from a wide array of backgrounds. Among our various contributors are people who work in theatre, but also people who work in law, medicine, events, marketing and even psychiatry! We are all united by our love for the London theatre scene.