William Shakespeare
Trish Wadley Productions
Riverside Studios (Studio 3)

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Michael C Fox, Jeremy Neumark Jones, Orlando James Credit: Mark Douet
Martins Imhangbe (Othello) and Rose Riley (Desdemona) Credit: Mark Douet
Rachel-Leah Hosker (Emilia) and Rose Riley (Desdemona) Credit: Mark Douet

It is tempting to let the character Iago dominate the play Othello. He leads the action, shapes the tragedy and speaks aloud about his motives and intentions, sometimes even playing with the language. A few years back, Mark Rylance had audiences in stitches with an hilarious performance as Iago at the Globe.

The Riverside production on a thrust stage, directed by Sinéad Rushe, gives a more nightmarish twist to the presentation of the arch-villain. The lights dim and a low, unsettling hum accompanies three actors, Michael C Fox, Orlando James and Jeremy Neumark Jones, sharing Iago’s lines, speaking to each other, emphasising at times their male collective laddish behaviour. It is striking, atmospheric and grabs your attention. Rather than making what he says seem disjointed, it draws out the twists and turns in his reflections. Occasionally, just one of them will speak to Othello while the others hang about suggesting the growing paranoia the words are generating.

The effect is impressive, but can slightly overshadow the realistic approach of the rest of the play. It can feel at times that everyone else is simply slipped in to keep him company. Although Martins Imhangbe as Othello delivers the words clearly with confidence and gives a very moving performance late in the play talking with Desdemona, he seems generally underpowered for much of the production, making it difficult to imagine him as a general, as someone of Royal background who was “sold into slavery”. He also seems too quickly convinced of Desdemona’s betrayal.

The show opens with a wild free dance by Rose Riley as Desdemona. The depiction of this character isn’t one of a passive victim of domestic abuse. She is always assertive, never afraid of those around her, and even speaks of her love for Othello from the podium of a coffee table. Our final image of her alive is in a brief visual scene between sudden moments of darkness. She is standing with her face being forcibly pressed against a section of a silky, bright orange curtain.

Although we have "The Willow Song" and some moments of Emilia (Rachel-Leah Hosker) and Desdemona quickly reflecting on the double standards women have to endure alongside men, the brutality women suffer in this play is softened, with Emilia’s importance as a woman alongside Desdemona slipping away. Even Emilia’s description of men as “all but stomachs, and we all but food. They eat us hungrily, and when they are full, They belch us" is spoken in a way which can be easily missed.

There is no doubt this is an imaginative, energetic, swiftly moving one-hundred-and-five-minute production. It does take a gentle approach to the themes of racism and sexism, but it is always entertaining, serious and watchable.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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