Updating Shakespeare to make him relevant and current seems to have become a new trend. Several Chicago theaters, including Filament Theatre and Court Theatre, have staged modernized versions of the playwright’s work. It’s a trend that makes some Shakespeare purists cringe, but I would point out that Shakespeare wrote in order to amuse, entertain, touch, and move—not to bore and confuse. However, adapting Shakespeare for a modern audience can be a double-edged sword: if it’s not done well, it can turn out very badly. The Q Brothers’ hip-hop adaptation at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Funk It Up About Nothin’, is somewhere between good and bad. It’s amusing, fun, and catchy, but lacks Shakespeare’s depth and universality.
Hip-hop, perhaps surprisingly, is a good medium for Shakespeare—his language is incredibly rhythmical and musical. As the directors say in the program, “if the Bard were alive today he might well be a rapper.” Yet this production doesn’t contain too much of Shakespeare’s language. Instead, it chooses to come up with its own modern dialogue.
This change is not to the play’s benefit, as it takes away a lot of Shakespeare’s depth. The jokes aren’t Shakespeare’s: They’re clearly things that the adaptors thought a modern audience would find funny. Most of the humor is firmly planted in contemporary popular culture. There’s even a joke about Enrique Iglesias. But Shakespeare’s jokes are very funny and meaningful even today, and it might have been better to just use them instead of creating a play that was so culturally and temporally specific. There are some clever parts: the characters of Beatrice (Ericka Ratcliff) and Benedick (Jeffrey Qaiyum) try to “outrap” each other just as, in the play, they engage in a battle of wits. Unfortunately, there are not very many of these moments.
The length of the play also keeps the spirit of Shakespeare from shining through. It’s really short—only about 65 minutes (with no intermission). That’s not to say that Shakespeare must always be three hours long, but this particular adaptation ends before it really gets started. It’s like a bounding leap through the play, and it feels sometimes like the adaptors just wanted to get through the play as quickly as they could without dwelling on particular scenes. The nature of hip-hop is such that it’s upbeat and fast, unlike many of Shakespeare’s long monologues, but since the adaptors seem to have come up with a lot of their own text, they could have come up with more of it. Perhaps that’s why the play doesn’t feel very serious at all. Shakespeare’s plays, and even his comedies, have moments of poignancy and depth, but this play seems to be so obsessed with its originality and humour that it loses some of the darkness and depth of the original.
Despite these flaws, this is a unique and challenging adaptation, and the actors are more than up to the task of hip-hopping their way through the play while acting their roles. The set is well done—it’s neither distracting nor overly elaborate. The actors enter and exit through every possible door and aisle, making the play immersive and interactive. And, however it’s done, a hip-hop version of Shakespeare is a must-see. However, the point of an updated rendition of Shakespeare is not to completely smother his plot with our culture. The point is to find what is universal in Shakespeare, what we can understand, and tell it in a new way—in this case, by using hip-hop. Ultimately, Shakespeare’s universality is buried under unnecessary attempts to modernize him.