Q Brothers: Hip-hop Othello

Q Brothers: Hip-hop Othello

By Jo Caird 03/05/12

Chicago-based theatre makers the Q Brothers have achieved critical and box office success with their hip-hop adaptations of Shakespeare plays. Now they’re back in the UK with a new adaptation of Othello commissioned by Shakespeare’s Globe for its World Shakespeare Festival programme, Globe to Globe. Here, the brothers – writer GQ (pictured, second from left) and musical director JQ (third) – tell Jo Caird about translating the Bard into rap…

Tell us how it all started...

GQ: It was 1998 and I was studying experimental theatre at New York University. As the final project one year some friends of mine – who are rappers as well as actors – and I wanted to create our own original piece of hip-hop theatre. But we were running out of time so decided to adapt a text instead and settled on Shakespeare. It seemed like a really fun idea. 

The reaction from most of our teachers and other students at NYU was pretty doubtful, but the head of my department came to me after our first rendition of The Bomb-itty of Errors [an adaptation of The Comedy of Errors] in 1998 and said, “You’re on to something here, you’ve got to keep on doing it and make sure that people see it.” There’s a musicality to Shakspeare’s language that lends itself really well to hip-hop.

Talk us through the process of adapting Shakespeare...

GQ: The first step is coming up with a line-for-line version of the original Shakespeare text in rhyme. While I’m writing the majority of that first draft, J is already making 10 to 20 beats in the flavour of the piece. So we start adding music to it, carving it apart, changing characters.

We update the language at the same time: that first translation is probably 80 to 90 per cent Shakespearean but by the time we do 20 to 30 more drafts, it’s probably only 10 to 20 per cent. There are certain moments where we like to pay homage to Shakespeare and leave a line exactly as it is, but for the most part we mess it up.

What is the greatest challenge when it comes to tackling Shakespeare?

GQ: The biggest challenges are around how we present this story so that we elevate it for a modern audience. There’s so much exposition and repetition – maybe because the plays were written for rowdy audiences who left to go to the bathroom and get more beer, we feel that Shakespeare had to repeat stuff so many times for people who weren’t listening or didn’t get it. When we do the first direct translation, we might have the same situation happen five times. In our version we’re only going to show a piece of it happening twice because we want to get to the point.

When presenting Shakespeare’s work in a new way, is it important not to be afraid of it?

GQ: People in the US might be a little afraid to tackle it because it’s still on such a pedestal, elevated to the point that people have a phobia of changing anything or seeing it outside the box. Whereas I think that people in the UK might be more open to twisting the text and messing it up because they’re more familiar with it and feel a greater sense of ownership over it. 

Your previous hits were both comedies – have you had to change your approach for Othello? 

GQ: We’re finding that there’s a lot of comedy to be had within a tragedy. The idea is not to dumb it down, but to elevate the really tragic moments by surrounding them by lighter, more comic, more accessible moments.

How does it feel to be representing hip-hop at the Globe’s ‘celebration of languages’?

JQ: It’s a big day for hip-hop, the fact that it’s being considered its own language. It feels kind of important to me. I think it’s really cool that what we’re doing with Shakespeare is being honoured in this way.

What do you say to the doubters – the people who think they won’t like what you do because they have no time for hip-hop?

GQ: What we say to them is, “Come see it!”. People come to us afterwards saying, “My kid brought me, I came here kicking and screaming, I thought that Shakespeare would be rolling in his grave, but it turns out he’s bopping his head to everything!”


Othello is at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, on 5 and 6 May. Book tickets.  

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.

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