All The World’s A Stage: Hip-hop Othello, Sudanese Cymbeline

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A man in a denim jumpsuit runs his hands over his body and tosses a long strand of wig-hair over his shoulder. “It’s a man’s world,” he sings in a falsetto, while his backing dancers — more guys in jumpsuits and wigs — sway from side to side. “But he’d be nothing without a women or a girl.”

Shakespeare’s Globe theater has never before seen a production of “Othello” like this. The replica Elizabethan playhouse, which sits on the same stretch of the River Thames in London as the 17th century original where the Bard once plied his trade, is usually packed with corsets, ruffs and the Queen’s English.

This production by Chicago’s Q Brothers turns the tragic hero into a rapper and his lover into a hook singer (that’s the guy who sings the catchy refrain in a hip-hop tune). It’s packed with expletives, dirty jokes and fat beats. Unsurprisingly, it splits opinion.

One Tweet said the play is “not just one of the best Othello’s I’ve seen but one of the best Shakespeare’s I’ve seen.” The Daily Mail called it “cringeworthy” and “patronizing,” though the tabloid’s writer admits he hasn’t seen it yet.

Q Brothers perform Othello at the Globe

Q Brothers perform Othello at the Globe

The Q Brothers are one of 37 theater companies, each from a different country, who have been invited to Globe to Globe, a festival of Shakespeare’s 37 plays performed from April 21 to June 9 as part of the run-up to the London Olympics.

“If you’re going to keep it the exact same way as you did 500 years before, then you’re losing the essence of it,” said Q Brothers actor and writer Gregory Qaiyum, aka GQ.

Asked if his lively, accessible production is closer to what Shakespeare intended than a dignified costumed version, GQ nodded. “That’s our goal. That’s our philosophy, for sure.”

From every nation, an interpretation

The task of choosing one company for each of the languages represented at the festival (including British Sign Language and, in Othello’s case, “hip-hop”) fell to festival Director Tom Bird, who says that it’s no longer a shock to find thriving theatrical communities in places like Kabul or Gaza.

“When you travel around the world, you realize that in London we make ourselves a theater bubble, and we decide that we’re just the best,” he said. “Too often we make theater from London for London, and when you start traveling around you cease to be surprised, because there’s incredible work in every corner of the world.”

Cymbeline performed live

One of those corners is South Sudan, a country that was created just a year ago. The country is currently embroiled in a conflict with its neighbor, Sudan. Actors from drama groups in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, formed an all-star company to perform “Cymbeline,” in which a British king defies an occupying Roman emperor and declares his people’s independence. It’s a topic that hits close to home for the company.

The production is full of singing, dancing and melodrama, with actors wearing animal skins, sandals and beaded necklaces and playing drums and tambourines. While scene summaries beamed from screens on either side of the stage, it wasn’t hard to follow the action: sweat-drenched actors wail and shriek with joy.

Other companies also emphasised contemporary parallels. A Maori take on “Troilus and Cressida” opens with the haka, the ceremonial war dance famously performed by New Zealand’s rugby team, and transplants the action from the siege of Troy to Maori tribal conflicts before colonization.

“Every single production has brought something new to the understanding of Shakespeare’s plays,” said Bird. “Cambridge University Press are here writing a book about the whole festival, and that shows how much it’s of interest to Shakespeare scholars as well as to the public.”

Bird: “Is there a Shakespeare play that floats your boat?”

The “Taming of the Shrew” in Urdu examines a woman’s place in Pakistan. A Hebrew “Merchant of Venice” casts new light on the controversial character of Shylock.

Richard II, performed by a Palestinian company in Arabic, emphasizes parallels between the downfall of the prideful medieval king and the recent ousting of Arab dictators. At one point, a crowd of masked, flag-wearing protesters storm the palace, chanting, “The people want Bolingbroke!”

A tempest of color

A company from Bengal, where catastrophic flooding is common, were assigned “The Tempest.” They fill the production with traditional costumes and Bollywood-esque backdrops. Director Nasir Uddin Yousuff explained that it was futile to try and preserve Shakespeare’s eloquence in the translation. Instead, he focused on making the play visually spectacular.

“It’s very Bangla,” said Yousuff, explaining that the painted steel suitcases bearing images of landscapes and monsters that were lined up onstage during the performance are normally used in marriage ceremonies in Bengali villages. The production had its world premiere in Dhaka, where demand for tickets was so great that hundreds were turned away at the door.

Yousuff: “To reach Globe is something very commendable”

Countries were chosen for inclusion according to their languages’ prevalence in London, ensuring shows in Polish, Turkish and Brazilian Portuguese, as well as their nation’s reverence for the playwright. “In places like Japan and Georgia,” Bird said, “Shakespeare is a huge part of their culture.”  

Levity marks the exercise, but the performers’ reverence for Shakespeare puts some pressure on the actors, many of whom have never traveled to the UK before. Even  Chicagoan GQ, who has won awards and toured Europe more than once, gets a little breathless when he starts talking about performing on the site that first saw a production of Othello in 1610.

“It’s incredible,” he enthuses. “I can’t fucking sleep! Our whole cast, people were crying and going what the fuck are we doing here?”

He turns to his producer: “I mean, where are we going to go from here, Rick, except downhill?”

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