Friday, 10 March 2017

Theatre review: Othello (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

With its black title character Othello is, unsurprisingly, most often used as a way of looking at racism, but for the last of this year's Swanamaker season Ellen McDougall has a different approach in mind. After all, the only overt racism in the play comes from Othello's enemies, but with help from a little tinkering with the text McDougall exposes how the misogyny in the play's world is even more deep-rooted. General Othello (Kurt Egyiawan) has made Michelle Cassio (Joanna Horton) his new lieutenant, to the fury of his ensign Iago (Sam Spruell,) who'd been expecting the promotion. Using his reputation as the most trusted of the officers, Iago decides to take revenge in a slow, insidious way.

Just before leaving for a battle in Cyprus, Othello made the surprise announcement of having secretly married the younger Desdemona (Natalie Klamar,) much against her father's wishes. Iago decides to destroy Othello by turning him against his new wife.

Trying to kill two birds with one stone and take out the woman who got the job he wanted, he starts to lay clues that Desdemona's relationship with Cassio might secretly be a sexual one. The focus here is very much on the women, obviously starting with swapping Cassio's gender, Iago's plan here to paint her as a predatory lesbian, a stereotype the other men easily swallow.

I've seen some good Desdemonas but Klamar gives her a particularly distinct interpretation here, confident at first then, having insisted she accompany her new husband to Cyprus, suddenly realising how out-of-her-depth she is in the middle of a war, and spending the rest of the play jittery, always seeming on the brink of a panic attack. It's only at the end that she gets her fire back, refusing to go into the dark without a fight.

This being the Swanamaker, that dark is often literal, "put out the light, and then put out the light" having a particular resonance when there's only a couple of candles left between the audience and a blackout. In a small cast, the women's side continues to be well-represented as Nadia Albina's Bianca enters the story earlier and is a lot less of a silly, hysterical character than usual, while Thalissa Teixeira's Emilia collaborates with Iago largely out of fear rather than just unquestioning love for her husband.

With the focus on the women, we don't get quite as distinctive takes on the two male leads as in the last few productions I've seen, but then this is painted as a world of uniformly angry men. It's only in the context of this kind of society that Egyiawan's Othello makes sense, as he's gentle and quiet, suddenly turning to madness-tinged rage once his jealousy is provoked. Spruell's Iago meanwhile is an out-and-out bully.

Yet this isn't a production without its lighter side, with Jon Foster's Brabantio providing some laughs in his impotent rage. Fly Davis' design covers the wooden panels with mirrors, too dirty for this society to properly see itself in, and in any case Othello starts to smash them in his rage. Joel Horwood's little additions to the text have mixed results - dropping in a few modern references is amusing but at times he overeggs it. More effective is the use of, mostly recent, pop songs coming from the musicians' gallery, and the interesting way the singers also provide clicking, humming sound effects to enhance the ominous mood. A lot of interesting ideas in a concise and different Othello.

Othello by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 22nd of April at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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