Friday, 11 April 2014

Theatre review: Othello (Grassroots Shakespeare London / Leicester Square Theatre)

Last summer, Grassroots Shakespeare London did a two-show rep at the Old Red Lion. The results were decidedly mixed, but there was enough of interest to make me keep an eye on what the company did next. This turns out to be Othello, which they've brought to the small thrust stage of Leicester Square Theatre's basement Lounge space. The moor Othello's (Nari Blair-Mangat) military prowess is such that the authorities of Venice are happy to overlook his origins and make him their most decorated general. He's just married the young Desdemona (Annabel Bates) when a crisis in Cyprus sees him set off to fight the Turks, taking his new bride with him. He's backed up by his new lieutenant Michael Cassio (Boris Mitkov,) but Cassio's appointment hasn't been universally popular: Endlessly told how trusted he is but never rewarded for it, Iago (James Alexandrou) has been passed over for promotion one time too many, and plots revenge.

As one of their attempts to recreate original Jacobethan practices, the company work without a director, something I'm not convinced works nowadays; there's not much of a unifying theme to the production, although the design's nod to the Crusades is nicely twisted in the climactic murder scene.

There's also something a bit vague about a lot of the characterisation (Blair-Mangat's Othello seems far too worldy-wise in the early scenes to be as naively reliant on Iago's opinion later on) which I would also partly blame on the lack of a director, partly on the brisk (just under two hours straight) storytelling. Although the latter does make for a pleasingly clear, focused run through the play's action.

Alexandrou proves a relaxed, clear speaker of Shakespeare's lines, and his laddish Iago seems less motivated by his personal grudge, more by a general frustration at the bizarre behaviour of his supposed betters. Less the master criminal, he's more making it up as he goes along, and I liked his tendency to address rhetorical questions directly to someone in the audience and get stroppy when they didn't provide a suggestion of what to do next.

A few of the actors including, unfortunately, Blair-Mangat himself, have a tendency to play way too big for the intimate space. But Emily Jane Kerr's spectacularly clueless Emilia is fun, and Mitkov matches Alexandrou in his ease with the language (I suspect Mitkov also served as production photographer because he doesn't appear in the publicity images; the company could do with learning a bit more cynicism and using his pretty face to put bums on seats.) This Othello stumbles at times but has its moments of clarity as well.

Othello by William Shakespeare is booking until the 26th of April at Leicester Square Theatre's Lounge.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

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