Arresting, unsettling and enthralling, Becca Stevens’ ‘Queen Mab’ is a sensory overload: an exquisite track inspired by a scene from Romeo and Juliet coupled with a hard-hitting video that explores the dangers faced by albino children in Tanzania. While this may sound like a somewhat incongruous pairing, Stevens’ audio-visual spectacular is nothing short of spellbinding.
There’s obviously a lot to unpack here. Let’s begin with the lyrics of ‘Queen Mab’, taken from a speech delivered by Romeo & Juliet’s Mercutio. Queen Mab is a fairy who visits lovers in their dreams, initially described as a whimsical, romantic figure but who Mercutio later reveals is a hag who brings nightmares of “cutting foreign throats” to soldiers and “bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs”.
This gradual tarnishing of Queen Mab’s image is mirrored in Stevens’ unfurling melodies. ‘Queen Mab’ opens delicately with Stevens’ soft harmonies singing perhaps the most poetic lines from Mercutio’s speech centring on grasshopper wings and watery moonlight beams. This illusion of tranquillity is quickly smashed however as a creeping sense of dread is ushered in with the harsh, thumping bassline and Stevens’ increasingly desperate vocals.
At times, Queen Mab feels disjointed, the calm and the anxious thrown together almost haphazardly, but this is surely the point. Stevens masterfully melds Shakespeare’s lyrics around her melody, picking it apart and restructuring it to create a foreboding, punchy track that remains true to all of Shakespeare’s original subtleties and nuances.
And then there’s the video. Far removed from any of the context of Shakespeare’s original, ‘Queen Mab’ is here accompanied by a narrative focused on an albino Tanzanian boy. As is revealed at the end of the video, Tanzania has the world’s largest albino population and, along with facing social isolation, albino people are hunted down for medicinal use in witchcraft.
The issue of albino persecution in Tanzania is a surprisingly fitting issue to accompany ‘Queen Mab’. Both the track and video begin with images of serenity and harmony before descending into something far more sinister. The themes of black magic are present in both – the wicked spells of Queen Mab and the witchcraft that threatens the video’s protagonist both evil and oppressive – the difference of course being that while one evil is fictional, the other is horribly real.
Stevens has woven an incredible – albeit unpleasant – tapestry with ‘Queen Mab’, knitting together poetry, music and social injustice in a way that is never forced or cloying. Rather, both the audio and visual elements that ‘Queen Mab’ offers are startling and compelling, both independently and together. Surely the first person to ever think of exploring both Shakespeare and African albinism within the same project, Stevens’ innovation is a bold move that has certainly paid off.