Modern street slang, words such as fam, peng, fleek and hench, should be dropped into Shakespearean dialogue, says the creator of an updated version of Othello set in the world of knife crime and urban violence. Darren Raymond believes that, just as Shakespeare once played with words and adapted the vernacular, so Britain’s youth are changing our shared lexicon.
“Young people invent language all the time,” said Raymond. “Adults hear teenagers using words they don’t recognise and think they are just plucking it out of thin air. But there is a whole urban vocabulary out there and it keeps evolving. So in our production of Othello we have as many ‘fams’ as we do ‘thees’ and ‘thous’.”
Raymond’s production, Othello: Remixed, which opens in London in June, is set around a boxing ring and brings the story of the jealous Moor of Venice to the London of 2019. And for Raymond, who is an ex-offender and a protege of award-winning actor Mark Rylance, the simple act of swapping street vocabulary for the Elizabethan slang used in the original text has allowed actors in his black and ethnic minority acting company to relate to the great tragedy.
Intermission Theatre runs drama courses with young people who are at risk of offending and regularly goes into prisons and young offender units. “Some of the cast know a lot about knife crime, although their view of it is retrospective. We wanted to look at how this threat of violence affects us,” said Raymond.
Modern slang, coupled with the sounds of hip-hop and grime, also help them communicate with a wider audience, argues Raymond, 37, who in 2006 left Pentonville prison where he’d discovered acting in a drama course run by the London Shakespeare Workshop.
“It works brilliantly, but it is all about how they use it,” he said. “The rhythms that young people use match Elizabethan slang so well. And it really removes the barriers with young people, who are brilliant inventors of language, just as Shakespeare was. Our approach is trying to reflect what is happening today.”
The 400-year-old tragedy is credited with first coining the word “addiction” which occurs in Act II, as well as the popular description of jealousy as a “green eyed monster”. Raymond and his company performed in Westminster Abbey to mark Shakespeare’s birthday in April. In the tribute, which was directed by Claire van Kampen, Rylance’s partner, the surname of one of Romeo and Juliet’s two warring familes, Capulet, was rhymed notably with “crap you get”.
In the company’s new version of Othello, first developed in a youth workshop, surrounding street violence comes to the fore. Championship boxer Othello choses Michael Cassio to be his corner man. A rejected rival, Iago, is consumed with envy and plots Othello’s downfall using faked evidence to play upon his mind.
“The play has love, jealousy, envy and self hatred. The Moor is a newcomer and a fighter, so for us he became a boxer. It is quite an isolated sport, so it works well as he is taken to the brink,” said Raymond. “Our approach is trying to reflect what is happening today. Shakespeare has long been excluded from certain sections of society and so hearing the iambic pentameter beat alongside the heart of London is so important.”
Rylance has used his influence to bring Raymond’s work into the public eye.
“Mark is a brilliant human being. He really wants more people to have access to these amazing characters and he has put his money where his mouth is,” said Raymond.
The actor and director, who invited Raymond to work with Shakespeare’s Globe when he was artistic director there, said: “Darren’s vision and the work of Intermission has become synonymous with using Shakespeare to reveal the culture of youth growing up in London today.
“I am really excited by this restaging and hope it will introduce new audiences to Shakespeare and the transformative power that his words still hold to this day.”
Othello: Remixed will be at Omnibus Theatre, London SW4, 25 June-14 July