English Touring Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory
Northern Stage, Newcastle
We open with the wedding of Othello and Desdemona. It’s a Muslim wedding because this Othello has not really converted to Christianity at all; he remains a secret Muslim.
There’s no Shakespearean authority for this and so, to understand the reasoning, you have to read a four-page article in the programme, an article which tells us that this Othello is a “Moor for our time.”
To have to read the programme to fully understand something that has been added to the plot sets alarm bells ringing for me.
But alright. Let’s accept that. Let’s accept the modern dress; let’s accept the conversation between Iago and Othello in a gym while Iago holds the punch bag as Othello works out. We might, however, wonder why a number of these punch bags hang above the stage in one scene. Or are they now duffle bags as the Venetian forces move to Cyprus?
And why do said forces not wear uniforms? Othello puts on a stab vest at one point, some of the soldiers wear black tee-shirts and put on black greatcoats (and carry flashlights) when sent in the night to arrest Othello, but that's all the military paraphernalia we get.
In fact, there’s little colour anywhere—except when the women appear. They—Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca—are brightly, at times even frivolously, dressed.
Now let’s forget this concept business—for make no mistake, this is director’s concept theatre—and see how Shakespeare fares.
Although Victor Oshin, in his professional stage debut, has a certain presence, I could not believe that this is the man who suffered greatly before coming to Venice where his military prowess raised him to the rank of General in the Duke’s army. He is simply too young.
Then there’s Iago; no matter how much he tells us he hates “the Moor” for appointing Cassio to be his lieutenant rather than him, there seems to be little passion, no light and dark, in Paul McEwan’s performance. One might dispute whether or not Iago is evil totally but surely no one can deny his passionate nature?
As Cassio, Philip Correia does the best that can be done in a part which I have always felt is somewhat underwritten. Christopher Bianchi’s Brabantio is suitably irate at his daughter’s marriage to the, to him, total unsuitable Othello, and when she stands up to him, the fury goes up a notch or two as he disowns her. As Roderigo (with Geordie accent), Brian Lonsdale gets the character’s gullibility, petulance and ire nicely.
As far as Desdemona (Kitty Archer) and Emilia (Kelly Price) are concerned, this is the first time I have felt that they have a real relationship. In fact, this is the first time I have felt that Emilia has any character at all and is not just a function. Having said that, their relationship is an “all girls together” sort of thing which is modern rather than Shakespearean and involves alcohol and giggles. It works, though, and brings an element of brightness (literally and figuratively) to the play.
But oh dear! Desdemona’s death… After giving a couple of instructions to Emilia to make sure the bed was made with the wedding sheets, we find Desdemona lying on a mat on the floor (and doing a bit of yoga before Othello comes in, which does seem a bit… off the wall, shall we say?) and being killed there.
I did so want to like this production—it’s only the third in the region this century—but, although it got better after the interval—something I heard that being said by a number of people as we made our slow way out of the theatre—I found it rather flat. Some good things; others not so good.
Please. Always put the play before the concept.