Sunday, 15 February 2015

Theatre review: Othello (Time Zone / Rose Bankside)

It looks like we already know which Shakespeare plays will dominate this year: The usually-rare Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure will be much in evidence, and as for Othello this production at the Rose Bankside is already my second of 2015. Pamela Schermann takes the play out of its military context, cutting the story down to its five central characters who are now City bankers. Othello (James Barnes) has recently promoted young up-and-comer Michael Cassio (Denholm Spurr,) much to the anger of Iago (Trevor Murphy,) who expected the promotion himself. He plots to bring down both men by making Othello suspicious that his wife Desdemona (Samantha Lock) is having an affair with Cassio. It's intended to hurt their careers, but by going for such a personal attack Iago sets off much deadlier consequences.

In a freezing-cold venue with no toilet facilities, cutting the action down to 90 minutes is a pretty essential move for the comfort of both audience and actors. Schermann's brutal edit of the play is a deft one, but the approach yields both benefits and problems.

Chief among the latter is that, while the corporate setting is well-realised, the love that's twisted so viciously isn't particularly believable. Barnes and Lock don't have a great deal of chemistry, but it doesn't help that - in order to get around the absence of Brabantio - their courting is done entirely in voiceover, leaving the audience little opportunity to see them as a couple. Bianca's absence is more successfully and cleverly dealt with, as we only hear from her (voiced by Charlie Blackwood) in a Skype conversation with Cassio.

Murphy's take on Iago borders on the demonic; there's a nicely sociopathic edge to it but little of the humour that usually makes the character darkly appealing. It's down to Ella Duncan to inject some humanity into proceedings with the only character who remains likeable in the re-setting, her matter-of-fact PA Emilia overshadowing her mistress as she so often does.

If not everything about the production works, there's no doubt the setting does: True, it's not as plausible for a cut-throat businessman to implicitly trust his colleague like Othello does Iago, but the production is inspired by the story of the banking intern who died after a 72-hour shift, and Schermann suggests both Othello and Cassio's health has suffered due to their job - so too might their judgement. It's also a heavy-drinking culture, which fits the scene of Iago sabotaging Cassio with alcohol. The production isn't quite as cold as the venue, but it's certainly stronger on ideas than it is on emotion.

Othello by William Shakespeare is booking until the 28th of February at the Rose Theatre Bankside.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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