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The Wire Tangles With Shakespeare

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On September 15 at The Crucible theatre in Sheffield, England, two stars from the highly acclaimed HBO epic The Wire, will debut in Shakespeare's quintessential psychological drama, Othello. Clarke Peters (who played detective Lester Freeman) will feature in the title role, opposite Dominic West (detective Jimmy McNulty) as Iago.

The link between The Wire and the works of Shakespeare has been a popular strand amongst both fans of the show and critics alike, ever since it was first aired on U.S. screens back in June of 2002. Ross Anderson, writing for The Times, summed up the euphoric reactions of the press when he stated that, 'In its praise, critics have summoned Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy and the Greek tragedians.' Writer Brian Appleyard referenced the quality of the show's characterizations when he contended that, 'as in Shakespeare, even the briefest walk-on becomes a fully rounded human being.' Some fans have even compared the heavy street patois of the show's African American characters to Shakespeare's old English -- not in style of course, but in the fact that both of them require translating for the untrained ear. The blogosphere has also contributed it's own opinions. Sydney-based blogger Starkimarki makes direct comparisons between The Wire's characters and Shakespeare's classic personalities. In his eyes D'Angelo is Hamlet and Avon Barksdale is Claudius.

Ironically, long before Clarke Peters was called to the role, he had harbored a longstanding ambition to play The Moor, as had other members of The Wire cast. 'I think at one point Wendell [Pierce, who played Bunk] brought it up,' Peters told The Observer. 'We were all in the same mindset: this would be a really wonderful thing for us to do.'

In the wake of a string of notable performances in the title role over the years -- by names such as Paul Robeson, Laurence Fishburne, Eamonn Walker, Willard White, Chiwetel Ejiofor and James Earl Jones -- the role has become a standard bearer for all contemporary black actors. These days, unless you've played The Moor, or some other of Shakespeare's leads in a major production, they'll always be a gaping hole in your portfolio.

As it turns out, Peters is not the first actor from The Wire to play Othello. On August 15 of last year, Seth Gilliam (Sgt. Ellis Carver) reprised the role in a Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production at Boston Common. It will be interesting to compare and contrast the different interpretations of both Wire stars. More to the point, is there a casting trend emerging here amongst contemporary theatre directors? One can imagine this being taken to an exciting extreme -- picture an HBO production of Othello, a Christmas special perhaps, in which all the characters are played by Wire actors, with Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale) as The Moor and Idris Elba (Stringer Bell) as Iago.

The links between Shakespeare and The Wire represent yet another evolutionary cog within the ever evolving culture of mash-ups. Cinema has recently thrown up Cowboys and Aliens, while my latest eBook, The Shakespeare Mash-up, fuses together elements from Romeo and Juliet and Othello to create a new play. Perhaps we need a new mash-up term to describe actors who crossover from The Wire to Shakespeare -- Wire-Shakespeareans sounds good to me. It could also be applied to a new kind of university course, Wire-Shakespeare studies. Perfect.