Intermission Theatre Company
This isn’t so much a remix as a rewrite, not the cut and paste of Charles Marowitz’s scandalous 1969 version nor Jude Christian’s more recent experiment but a new play that takes the outline of Shakespeare’s story of a good man being fed lies to stir his jealousy to murder pitch and reworks it.
The entire action now takes place in and around a boxing ring. The theatre becomes the gymnasium run by Frank (Nana Antwi-Nyanin) complete with lockers, punch bags and benches. It becomes the hub of the social life of members and their girlfriends (though that means the final climactic scene can’t be set in a bedroom).
Othello (Kwame Reed) isn’t a celebrated general with a national profile but a boxer who is a championship contender. His prowess and personality have won the heart of Desdemona (Hoda Bentaher) who is Frank’s daughter and Frank approves of the liaison. In this version, disapproving Brabantio (Tristram Anyiam) is her brother.
Darren Raymond’s play isn’t about ethnicity (characters and actors are all black), though Othello as an immigrant is more of an outsider. The malicious conniving of Baba Oyejide’s Iago is sparked off by Micha Loubon’s Cassio being chosen instead of himself as Othello’s corner-man. He seeks to score off both of them by convincing Othello that Desdemona has been sleeping with Cassio, even producing mobile phone evidence that appears to confirm it and, when Desdemona loses a ring (a handkerchief in Shakespeare) handed down by Othello’s mother that Othello made his love gift, claims she’s given it to Cassio.
Though omitting the female viewpoint that Shakespeare sardonically presents through Iago’s wife Emilia (Nakeba Buchanan), Raymond retains a subplot with Iago. He cons cash out of foolish Rico (Iain Gordon) who has the hots for Desdemona by claiming he can get her for him and basically follows Shakespeare’s plot but using the language of modern London interspersed with key quotes from the original.
Standing on the sidelines is bow-tied, jewel-earringed Danielle Adegoke, whom the programme lists as Referee. She is sometimes a commentator on the action, sometimes like some inner voice supplies ideas to Iago and Othello contributing to what is kept of their soliloquies. It’s a device that seems at odds with the contemporary realism of the other performances that are delivered with intelligence and energy and great physicality in their convincing sparring in a production that makes dramatic use of music and lighting, especially as Othello shadow boxes in the half-light.
The production abandons one of Shakespeare’s most effective devices: talking straight to the audience. We don’t get that direct impact from Iago boasting about his plans and sharing his evil ideas with us, nor of Othello unburdening his soul (for though often he could be addressing Iago he is also sharing his thoughts with the audience) so it loses that collective complicity. The strength of the performance comes as much, perhaps more, from the actors’ physical presence as from what they say.
And what does the play itself want to say? At a time when we are increasingly concerned with knife crime and violence, is this a reminder of how easily things can be stirred up in our society, how volatile things can be if we think in terms of striking rather than talking, though combat sports are usually presented as defusing violence? This update reflects how little some things have changed in relation to gender, perhaps even more forcefully since the “willow song” scene with its claim to women having equal needs has no equivalent here.
The cast are all alumnae of Intermission Youth Theatre, a 10-month youth monitoring programme working with 16- to 25-year-olds from across London who are lacking in opportunities, at risk of offending and live in challenging environments. They have all gone on to start professional careers and their cooperative contribution to this staging is evidence of how effective the programme is in building confidence and responsibility.
I have no problems with pinching Shakespeare’s stories. His own plots were often borrowed ones, but I have strong reservations about the idea that they make Shakespeare “understandable” to modern audiences, especially youngsters. Reworking the story in modern terms (as this company did to create this production) is an exercise to throw fresh light on the play but putting the language into a modern vernacular isn’t to share Shakespeare—it’s his words that make the work wonderful. Our education system needs to introduce Shakespeare through theatre not reading by rote, to spark a love of words and of poetry not make them exam fodder.
I am happy with productions that relocate place or period to suit the content of plays that were originally staged in a contemporary style. Slight modifications to the odd word which has changed its meaning over the centuries, or cutting what seems overlong or confusing I find acceptable. They still remain Shakespeare but rewriting his stories, whether it be Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales or 21st century, aren’t.
For me, Raymond has kept too much of Shakespeare and I find myself, as must many who know the play well, aware of what he has done with it, Shakespeare’s lines in the back of my head, rather than giving myself up to the new play. This Iago, Othello and Desdemona are fresh creations. When Othello takes Desdemona to Nando’s, I want to get caught up in their story, not be shadowed by Shakespeare.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton