The Phil Willmott Company
Phil Wilmott’s production of Othello is set in April 1919 India, at a time when a few Indian soldiers had won the right to officer both Indian and British soldiers. It is also the month when Reginald Dyer, the military commander of Amritsar, ordered soldiers to fire on unarmed crowds at the Jallianwala Bagh killing as many as 1,000 people including many children.
In these circumstances, the Indian soldier Othello is asked by the Duke to take command of an ethnically mixed force to prevent any threat resulting from these events.
Phil Wilmott adds the word “Mohammedan” to Iago’s early racist claim to Desdemona’s father that “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe,” to emphasise the way religion as well as ethnicity separates Othello from others. Later, as Indian discontent begins to worry the authorities, they decide to withdraw all “native” officers and Othello is replaced by Cassio.
All this helps us understand the way racial and religious prejudice isolates and distorts the judgement of Othello making him easy prey to Iago. It also gives the play an important topicality given the current racism against Muslims in the UK and the approaching hundred-year anniversary of the Amritsar massacre for which Britain has yet to apologise.
Unfortunately having pointed the play in a politically interesting direction, the production falters in its delivery and even at times makes some clumsy choices.
Matthew Wade as Othello expresses the social isolation as a form of disengagement even from Desdemona (Carlotta De Gregori), in whom you will wonder if he has ever been interested. But this then switches under the provocations of Iago to an over-the-top rage that includes him emerging at one point from the near darkness to yell in horror film fashion, “strumpet I come.” Dissatisfied with Desdemona as he is, he knocks her to the ground a number of times in front of white officers in a way you would have thought a successful Indian officer had learned was slightly unwise.
There are other unfortunate choices which undermine the notion that there is a big problem of racism. The character of Desdemona’s father Brabantio is merged with that of the Duke (Jeremy Todd), so instead of the Duke clamping down on the father’s demand for action against Othello, the danger just vanishes. More surprisingly when Iago tries to escape arrest, he is returned at the point of a gun by the Indian woman Bianca (Megan Grech), who must somehow have understood that the white British would have no problems with a gun-toting Indian threatening the life of a white British soldier. (She mustn’t have heard about Amritsar.)
Of course we should all be in favour of women actors getting a better stage presence, but I’m not sure that is what this company is doing, especially given the way they present act 4 scene 3, which can be one of the most intense, moving scenes in theatre. It is usually a quiet moment in which Emilia (Claire Lloyd) and Desdemona talk about the abuse of men, the poignancy of their words and the willow song emphasised by the audience knowledge that Othello plans to kill Desdemona. Yet we are distracted from most of this by Iago tinkling away at a piano.
Iago is the engine of the play with Rikki Lawton giving a believable performance as a bluff soldier driven to a terrible cruelty by the frustrations of what he regards as the injustice of being overlooked for promotion.
Cassio (Jerome Dowling) is curiously portrayed as a chaplain who, when he is not heading a religious service, is sleeping with a prostitute and getting into drunken fights, not that these things stop the authorities putting him in charge of the armed forces in that area.
It may be that this watchable production is still finding its way, but at the moment It seems like a good idea lost in confusion.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna