Othello

William Shakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Company

Hackney Empire and touring

(2009)

Review by Howard Loxton

If, like me, you had overheard the conversation of those from the packed audience on Hackney Central platform travelling home from the RSC's touring Othello on its London first night you would have had no doubt that it was an interesting production from the way it had polarised opinions. Director Kathryn Hunter has been very inventive in her treatment of this tale of jealousy and deception but, at three and a half hours long despite cuts, it has its longeurs. One of them surprisingly, the very physical scene of the attempt to murder Cassio, though that was perhaps not helped by two of its main participants being played at short notice by understudies.

She has given the play a very military emphasis, putting usually civilian characters in uniform and introducing parade ground moments, which gave unity to the production. She has also emphasised an underlying racism by replacing Iago's drinking songs when he gets Cassio drunk with a black-face singer - the setting is mid-twentieth-century - who does a crude comic turn in which Othello's marriage is ridiculed with a grotesquely sexual Desdemona dummy producing black and white gollywog twins. When Othello charges in upon this scene he shows no reaction (there is certainly none of Shakespeare's dialogue that can be used to fit the situation) but he does pick up the red haired gollywog and carries it with him in several later scenes. But add this mocking of his marriage to his own growing delusions and it further fuels the battering its credibility is taking in is own mind.

We should perhaps be more aware of the effort involved in a man so violent and so quick to anger suppressing his feelings at this point. Patrice Naiambana's Othello is a proud general who has no patience with those who don't pass muster; he can lash out with a bullwhip. This upright man, his voice rich with African vowels but rising to hysteric crescendos, is bent by uncontrolled emotions. Iago stirs his jealousy to madness and his epileptic fit becomes not just a metaphor but a very real derangement. We also see the opposite side of the coin, our first sighting is a prologue in which we see him serenading Desdemona on a Rialto-like Venetian bridge and presenting her with his mother's strawberry-embroidered handkerchief which appears as a frequent reminder in later scenes. Its loss is heightened by happening when Desdemona joins Cypriot townspeople in a traditional dance to a song (in Greek) that non-Greek speakers may not realise is itself about a lost mandilo, a handkerchief.

Natalia Tena gives Desdemona a playful innocence, she really does let Cassio (Robert Vernon, taking over from Alex Hassell for this performance) flirt a little too far; shocked and terrified when her husband gets out his whip. In an inserted episode she escapes into the security of a dream of her father before singing the willow song alone in bed awaiting her final encounter with Othello. It makes a touching scene but I have no idea what was said, perhaps he appropriated Emilia's lines about wives and husband, but upstage and kneeling on the floor the reached my part of the stalls below him as little more than a murmur. The rake of the original Hackney stage perhaps gave a better acoustic for this is a problem I have found before in this part of the house. However, despite a few lapses in audibility the text was delivered briskly and clearly, though without much relish for the richness of the language and the story comes over clearly. Emilia, beautifully played by Tamzin Griffin, is an army wife, gentle beneath her tough front, making up for a somewhat cut role with a strong performance.

Alex Hassell (who usually plays Cassio) was playing as understudy for an indisposed Michael Gould. The curtain was delayed a little with the iron down, I guess to run through the fight scene and other tricky physical passages. Only a couple of repeated phrases gave any indication that he did not usually play it. This Iago was a cheeky pup that knew exactly how to get what he wanted whether by charm, trickery or bold effrontery, a performance that will grow in depth if he plays it longer.

Liz Cooke has mounted the play simply and stylishly with a sky cloth pattern by Mark Jonathan's lighting to suggest we are never far from water whether Venice's canals or the Cyprus seas. Two stepped ramps are used to form the Rialto Bridge or become the prows of circling ships; meshed panels, moved and held by actors, form entrances to buildings or background framing that has strong overtones of riot shields held by militia. At times the scenic elements are used in a sort of ballet to suggest both the surging waters as the ships sail to Cyprus and the confusion of Othello's mind. Marcello Magni is credited with directing movement (he also plays a comic Roderigo: his accent and that of Hannes Flaschberger at the beginning of the play made me think we were in for an evening when Othello would prove to be the only English voice, setting him apart from the Venetians). If this is Magni's work, it gives the production an extra visual dimension though occasionally slowing down the action.

The additions and innovations clearly upset some. In retrospect they seem largely justified and the arc of the fall of this Othello logical, though we don't see enough of the charismatic quality that must have captured Desdemona and the beauty of some his fine interchanges is lost in the frantic escalation of their passion. The production is underscored by Ian Dickinson's sound design and Stephen Warbeck's music with its African echoes, played by Musical Director Akintayo Akinbode.

At Hackney Empire until 14th February then touring: Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 17th-21st February; Oxford Playhouse 24th-28th February, Liverpool Playhouse 3rd-7th March.

Peter Lathan reviewed this production at Northern Stage, Newcastle