Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Othello is a play that seems largely to take place at night, especially appropriate to the candle-lit darkness of the Wanamaker Playhouse, which becomes a cloak for its devious manipulation and bedroom action as villain Iago plots to ruin General Othello by convincing him that Desdemona, his new-married and innocent wife, has been unfaithful.
Ellen McDougall’s production is fast-moving and makes the storyline especially clear. She and dramaturge Joel Horwood have made considerable cuts, including parts of some of the best-known speeches, and replaced some text that might not be clear to modern ears with modern equivalents.
Those with a deep knowledge of the play may miss some of the poetry but more noticeable is the way this staging emphasises not only the male theme of jealousy and revenge but the way the women in it are treated.
At the start, a bed is thrust out on the stage, its sheets blood-marked, as they will be at the play’s end. This could make the whole play a flashback but equally it could be the physical evidence of Othello’s newly consummated marriage and a signal that what we are to see is centred on male sexuality and male rights.
Before the play itself begins, there is a flash of light as a figure centre stage photographs this scene on a mobile. This is a story for the present though it takes place in the past. As actors in long johns and nightshirts put ruffs around their necks, they become part of the Jacobean world of the playhouse. They then don costumes that suggest a little earlier. Music mingles then and now as a capella voices sing arrangements of modern pop songs.
Gender roles are emphasised. Male costumes flaunt codpieces that look more like penis sheaths: Iago’s free-thrusting prominence is decorated with silver thread, Rodrigo, a would-be suitor of Desdemona whom he is fleecing by pretending to aid him, has a miniature by comparison, red-embroidered. In the shadows of the candles, I couldn’t make clear comparison of Kurt Egyiawan’s black-clad Othello but it could not have been so exhibitionist. This slim, good-looking Othello is of modest height, a courtly figure, beautifully spoken, a very gentle general despite his authority and military reputation.
His Ensign Iago doesn’t have his polish. A big guy by comparison, he is decidedly plebeian but close to his General, though not so close as he thought. He’s piqued that he’s not been made Othello’s Lieutenant, the more so since that promotion has gone to Michelle Cassio, a woman.
This gender change from Michael Cassio and Iago’s subsequent implication of a lesbian relationship between her and Desdemona adds a new dimension. The naivety of Joanna Horton’s Cassio and her somewhat unwise affair with Nadia Albina’s prostitute Bianca do make you wonder why she should have been chosen but give added emphasis to the idea that social status rather than experience decide the posting.
Sam Spruell makes Iago good at being everybody’s best mate but he pares down the relish with which he shares his plans with the audience and doesn’t emphasise the way he plays upon Othello. He cloaks his villainy and doesn’t demand attention, which avoids Iago becoming too dominant, but, in a production where scenes often overlap with characters left on stage, there is the neat theatrical conceit of him with the audience, watching his schemes working, even in scenes where he could never be present.
As his wife Emilia, Thalissa Teixeira gives us a woman who knows her place, both socially and in marriage. Her previous docility makes her passionate declaration that woman have the same needs as men seem almost revolutionary.
Emilia knows the world but Natalie Klamar’s Desdemona has been given a very sheltered rearing. She’s vulnerably innocent but with a firm sense of values as, like Lear’s Cordelia, she speaks of filial and marital duty. It is easy to see how she would have been bowled over by handsome Othello, hardly needing his touching tales of slavery, adventure and conquest to win her affection.
However confident in warfare, when appearing before the Venetian nobility Egyiawan’s Othello is just a little awkward, breaths break up the verse with the suggestion that these might be prepared speeches, despite his calm demeanour. It is a shock when the composure collapses. Where Shakespeare has his emotions leading to an epileptic fit this becomes a great furniture smashing fit of rage. This Othello never really regains his composure until he has made his last decisions.
The second half of this production is a helter skelter of activity. The bed is back on stage throughout, action bounding across it. This scene is not in a bedroom, it is happening elsewhere, but it is a symbol, almost a character, love or lust, or male domination. When the play is ended with a final photo of piled bodies taken on a mobile, the female survivors wreck it, extinguish all lights and then kindle a new flame.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton