Thursday 1 February 2024

Theatre review: Othello (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Interesting times to be visiting the Globe, the venue that can do everything except draft a press release that doesn't dig them into a deeper hole. Ola Ince is looking like one of those directors who can reinvent a Shakespeare play to fit a very specific modern-day issue, and actually follow through with the idea. After her 2021 Romeo & Juliet was filtered through the way Tory cuts would have caused every beat of the story, her Othello in the Swanamaker becomes about racism in the Metropolitan Police, and some of the language is modified to match this setting: Othello is no longer referred to as the General but the Guvnor, Desdemona is usually called Desi, one of the story's inciting incidents now involves Othello choosing an Eton old boy as his new Inspector rather than a more experienced cop, and instead of a military action from Venice to Cyprus, the characters from Scotland Yard are going on an undercover cartel bust in Docklands.

Actually the "undercover" part probably doesn't bear too much scrutiny, especially what with people being allowed to bring their spouses along for the ride, but other than that I was happy with how effectively Ince's concept and Amelia Jane Hankin's designs transposed the characters into a world where they're sneaking through underground tunnels and setting up stakeouts.

Amid completely unfounded rumours of kidnap and coercion, DCI Othello (Ken Nwosu) has just married Desdemona (Poppy Gilbert,) and appointed Michael Cassio (Oli Higginson*) as his second in command. But as the mission begins, things start to go wrong: Cassio gets drunk when he should be on surveillance duty, and clues start to suggest that the young Inspector is having an affair with Desdemona. Othello confides in and takes advice from the trusted Iago (Ralph Davis,) unaware that for murky reasons of his own, Iago is actually masterminding everything behind the scenes.

Ince's other major twist on the play is to have Ira Mandela Siobhan play a version of Othello's subconscious who appears in a number of his scenes. Mostly he expresses what's going on under the surface through movement and dance, although the soliloquies turn into dialogues where the two versions of Othello talk to each other and hash out his thoughts. It's a striking and interesting conceit although I did find it contradictory about exactly what it represented: The first time he appears it feels very clear, as Nwosu can put on a blandly impassive front when presented with unfounded accusations about his marriage, while Mandela Siobhan can show all the pain he's feeling and supressing.

But later there are times when Subconscious Othello appears to represent all the worst impulses that Iago is successfully stirring up, and others where he's trying and failing to calm them. In the end I got my head round it by seeing Subconscious Othello as similar to a His Dark Materials dæmon, and not even a particularly healthy human/dæmon relationship, more like a Mrs Coulter/Golden Monkey relationship where Othello only pays heed to his dæmon's negative influences, ignoring his positive ones, repelling his attempts to offer comfort and eventually rejecting him altogether.

You'd imagine Nwosu not being best pleased at getting one of the great Shakespearean roles and having to share it, but whether it's despite or because of the added gimmick, he really puts a personal stamp on the part, making it one of the most nuanced developments of the role I've seen.

But there's a lot of good character work going on elsewhere as well, including the usually thankless roles of the female victims: Charlotte Bate has the advantage that Emilia is part of the squad and a no-nonsense cop - she's as fooled by her husband as anyone else is, rather than being cowed by him. But Gilbert also manages to get some fire into Desdemona, making her a worthy partner to Othello, and her fate a tragedy in itself, rather than just the culmination of her husband's.

With Othello's inner world feeling clearer here, it's Iago who becomes the most shadowy character. The character's motives are contradictory at the best of times, and productions often place emphasis on either the rumours of Emilia's infidelity with Othello (which Iago seems to be the only person to have ever heard or spread) or being passed over for promotion. Here the motives remain vague in a way that feels deliberate and in keeping with the theme: If Iago's dislike of Othello comes not just from racism, but from a racism embedded in the system he's always worked in so he's barely even considered that it's part of him, it makes sense that he would be throwing around more valid motives to convince himself as much as the audience that there's some logic to his actions.

Davis is an Iago whose strategy is to go under the radar - the kind of colleague people would say they liked if you asked them, but who they don't actually think about often enough to notice anything he's actually doing. It means the audience can underestimate him as well: Sam Swann's Roderigo is played pretty unambiguously as a comic foil, the running joke being him turning up in a series of disguises - in CSI overalls, as a Deliveroo rider - so the casual way Iago dispenses with him is a cause for gasps.

Other than it being a bit shorter there's not much more I could ask for from a production of a play whose oppressive nature can make it hard going. Not that it's a barrel of laughs here but there's a real sense of energy, not to mention of really understanding the conceit and the characters. There's also a good mix of candlelight and external light from Anna Watson's design, and sound plays a large part: Renell Shaw's music is eclectic and cinematic but I particularly liked how its jazzy edge during the action scenes referenced cop show sountracks, and the repetition of the more racist language in the script coming through walkie talkies - like something Othello wasn't meant to hear but did - feels an important part of our understanding of his mental state. Earning its high concept, this has to be one of the strongest productions of the play I've seen.

Othello by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 13th of April at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: John Persson.

*taking another role previously played by Jonathan Bailey, increasingly making him the Al Weaver to Bailey's Ben Whishaw. Now if he just plays John in Cock, he can be the Al Weaver to both of them.

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