Othello

Fri 5th – Sat 20th August 2011

reviews

Madeleine Morley

at 10:52 on 20th Aug 2011

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There is nothing particularly special about this production of Othello, and nothing particularly terrible about it either. The actors are strong and persuasive; the lines are delivered with enthusiasm and charisma; the set is kept to a minimum which allows audience members to hear the stunning richness and intricacy of the plays language. Set in what I eventually discover is meant to be the 1970s, this is a naturalistic, fairly unexceptional version of Othello, which makes you wonder what their motives for doing it were. There has been no tampering or adaptation involved except for the presence of a couple of walkie-talkies and an old copy of Playboy. Perhaps this has given the actors the opportunity to delve into the passions and conflicts of their characters, the three principle roles of Othello (Ekow Quartey), Iago (Tom Black) and Desdemona (Cressida Banas) being particularly strong. The real star seems to be Louisa Beadel as Emelia, who captures and exemplifies the idea of a powerful, intelligent female in confrontation with an extremely intimidating and masculine force.

Whilst the actors have thoroughly immersed themselves in their roles, the period in which the play has been set seems to be a little vague, or at least not pushed to its full potential. The army costumes at first made me think that the production was set in World War II or the Vietnam War, but Desdemona then arrives in a full length, flowery, whimsical hippy dress and a fringed jean vest. This, although slightly bizarre, only put me off after seeing Emelia in what looked like a set of basic smart wear from Top Shop. If you're going to do a modernized version of Shakespeare, it seems important to me to play and experiment with the new possibilities by setting it in different era. This vision of Othello would have been far meatier had it been stripped away of all the futile distracting detail and instead focused on the outstanding acting ability of the cast.

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Kate Abnett

at 12:15 on 20th Aug 2011

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Beginning with a kiss, this Dugout Theatre production is advertised as a retelling “with allusions to contemporary warfare and the Vietnam war”. However, the period of the piece was undecipherable. The military attire of the soldiers was set alongside a Roderigo in too-short flares and curious additions to Desdemona’s virginal white attire were chunky modern jewellery and a fringed denim waistcoat.

The technical effects were generally amateur, with the sound of birdsong oddly cropping up in indoor scenes and a soundscape of a raging storm being awkwardly turned down when characters spoke softly. However, Iago using walkie talkies to make Othello hear Cassio’s ‘confession’ was a stylish reworking, and a later scene slowly brought the lights down as the villain danced to Mungo Jerry was humorously twisted and one of the play’s flashes few of inspired directing.

The show rested on the shoulders of Tom Black’s Iago. Until the final few scenes, when Louisa Beadel’s maternal, strong Emilia stole the show with the most dramatic climax of any character, Black’s talent stood out a mile. He brought a horrible air of calm to the role, which effectively asked some of the larger questions asked about Iago’s motivations. The actor’s youthful appearance added further to the understated sinisterness of this villain, and the glee his eyes shined with as he wove his web of deceit had the audience enthralled.

Black’s biggest contribution to the play, however, was his almost singlehanded control of its pace. He playfully pulled out lines (“abhor the moor”), and gave the audience what felt like their only real chance to pause to enjoy the wit that sparkles underneath the script’s tragedy. One of the best scenes was his discussion with Othello about the appearances of men. With Black onstage, lines hung in the air and could be savoured, yet when he exited, Othello promptly doubled the speed with which he spoke and hurried offstage.

Cressida Bonas’s Desdemona had a playful, almost childish confusion that convinced the audience she had not deserved the fate she was dealt. Her feebleness, while no feminist statement, evoked real pity and the willow song provided a rare touching moment. But the real female star was Emilia, whose maternal yet harsh interpretation of the role matched the leering evil of her husband admirably.

Actor Oli Forsyth also deserves mention. The ease with which he introduced us to his almost bumbling nice-guy Cassio gave such an impression that his later drink-fuelled rage was so out of character that it brilliantly exposed the extent of Iago’s powers, bringing together the intricate unity of the plot before the audience’s eyes.

The venue’s layout meant the actors needed to look up, as opposed to forwards, in order to address the audience. Only Iago and Emilia did this consistently, and Othello himself looked up far too little. In a military scene, when for the first time he really moved around the stage and focussed his gaze on the audience, it was so unexpected it felt false. This prevented a real engagement between audience and character, and with his head down and back to the audience, the actor rendered his last few lines barely audible.

Lines were delivered throughout much too fast and actors stumbled as a result. Potentially show-stopping dialogue was brushed over and much of the military discussions became white noise, as so little pausing or emphasis was injected into the delivery. On the other hand, the play lacked physical movement. Actors did not use the onstage space to their advantage, and some odd directorial decisions added to the stilted feeling – in a scene when Iago was trying to convince an unsure Roderigo to do his bdding, they were trapped in a small spotlight making Roderigo’s decision clear to the audience before he actually made it - he wasn’t going anywhere.

Awful costumes and the awkward lack of movement from much of the cast meant this show was never stylish or slick. However, the few actors that shone (Iago, Emilia and Cassio), were not just good –they were outstanding and confusingly professional. Perhaps the real failing of this production was its setting – the audience looked down onto the stage, and this just wasn’t addressed. The production overall was never bad, but most scenes contained something that dragged them down – be it rushing through lines, an actor in the background staring into space or the continual frustration of not seeing the face of the hero himself, it felt like the audience was never allowed close enough to Shakespeare’s brilliance to let themselves be convinced.

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