Othello

William Shakespeare
English Touring Theatre
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
to

Trying to shoehorn any Shakespeare play into a different time setting always sits uneasily with me—especially trying to place it in the modern day. Although the skill of Shakespeare’s writing and the basics of human nature—i.e. "there is nothing new under the sun"—mean that the themes in the plays resonate down through the ages, nevertheless I always find it rather incongruous to hear the archaic language spoken through the prism of the 21st century and so many references only work if the play is placed in its original context and setting.

This production is celebrating ETT’s 25th anniversary year and, according to the programme notes, the idea was to put the play firmly in the present day with all the current issues we in the West have with re-emerging racism and Islamaphobia in the face of increasing terrorist threats and incidents, the emergence of IS and the far-right US presidency of Donald Trump.

The problem is that director Richard Twyman’s artistic designs found it hard to equate with this concept, so what has emerged is rather a mish-mash of ideas that left feelings of irritation with costume and set overshadowing the enjoyment of the play.

The set is a lightbox of sorts: a bank of lights above a raised stage, bare except for what is brought into the acting area by the characters, and a surround of neon type poles through which they make their entrances and exits. Modern plastic chairs sit uncomfortably with prayer mats and a rather incongruous 1950s microphone that descends from above and into which characters randomly speak.

The costumes are neither one thing or the other: the soldiers in black tee-shirts and jeans; Othello wears a stab-proof vest but no other uniform. Other characters look like they’ve been dressed by the local charity shop. And Desdemona is in what looks like a series of 1980s jumpsuits. It's all very unsettling.

And although it is very clear in the text that Othello is a converted Christian, the decision has been to present him as a Muslim in disguise—the opening scene shows a Muslim marriage to Desdemona—and although he wears a large cross around his neck he keeps his prayer beads in his pocket. A not so subtle reference to the ‘enemy within’ possibly. Or how other races feel they have to assimilate—or not as the case may be.

Away from the politics and back to the play. Othello is a striking character and Victor Oshin making his stage debut gives him plenty of presence, although I could have done with little more confidence from one that is in charge of a whole army.

Brian Lonsdale plays Roderigo as a Northern simpleton and he warms to the role as we warm to him, giving us some much needed humour. Philip Correia is a suitable Cassio, if a little on the slight size, with good diction. But best of the males is Paul McEwen’s Iago, relishing his need to cause mischief and bring a great man down. He is very believable and works up a nice report with the audience while carrying the production every time he is on stage.

Unfortunately, Kitty Archer as Desdemona is both miscast and mis-directed. Where she should be regal, she is silly; where she should be tragic, she is irritating. There is no grace about her and certainly nothing that is a calm centre in the midst of the storm. A drunken heart to heart with her maid is also ill thought out, as is a rather embarrassing drunken scene with the soldiers.

I’m sure the ideas behind this tour are all very worthy, but it does not translate that well onto the stage. And the lack of a suitable place to do the deed at the end—Desdemona is found on a yoga mat and strangled on the ground—means a lacklustre finish to a rather mixed bag of a production.

And at nigh on three hours, probably a six out of ten is the best I can give.

Suzanne Hawkes