Othello, or the Tragedy of Conchy Joe

William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Robin Belfield
The Nuffield Theatre Company and Yellowtale Theatre Company
Greenwich Theatre and touring

Othello, or the Tragedy of Conchy Joe production photo

I've long wanted to see a production of Othello in which roles were race reversed so I was delighted to be able to catch this at its London date. To make the necessary transfer from the Moor in a white society to an equivalent opposite, adaptor and director/Robin Belfield has set the action in the Caribbean, and, more specifically, in the Bahamas where Bahamian's of European stock form only about 15 per cent of the population. The majority black population have a slang name for a white: 'Conchy Joe' (pronounced Conk) - so he has made a substitution throughout that whenever characters refer to the Moor they call Othello the Conk.

Conk has a hard sound that doesn't fit into the verse as smoothly or have the sensuous resonance of Moor, and of course the change in familiar lines tends to make it more noticeable for those familiar with the text, but this is an intelligent transposition of the setting, which is also updated to be contemporary. Belfield has also chosen to set the action on a small fishing boat and to stage it with a cast of just three actors: Craig Pinder as Othello, newcomer Moses Hardwick, recently graduated from RADA, as Iago and Belinda Owusu (who played teenage Libby Fox in EastEnders) making what I believe is her stage debut as Desdemona.

In 2005 Tim Carrol did The Tempest at the Globe with just three actors doubling all the characters and largely pulled it off but that's not Belfield's approach. He limits himself to the three characters, plus the voice of Cassio on a crackly ship-to-shore radio link and sets it entirely on a fishing boat. That may be good for the budget and make touring easier but they are a considerable handicap to presenting Shakespeare's play.

With only three characters (and a fairly pale skinned Desdemona) we are much less aware of the racial divide that Othello and Desdemona have crossed and, isolated at sea, there is absolutely no sense of the society in which they live, of these being important figures on the public stage. The military context is abandoned along with those elements of the plot so there is no sense of questions of status and rank. Redistribution of some lines, essential to the story, also tends to change the relationships between the characters. With these cuts all that is left, central though it may be to the plot, is jealousy. The rest - all the other characters and subplots - has gone. The running time of less than 90 minutes, including interval, gives some idea of the scale of the cuts.

Before the play begins Othello and Iago are on stage. The Conch is strumming a guitar and singing Bahamian songs. The opening scenes are cut, the bare outline of the back story provided by these three recalling the confrontation with Desdemona's father, with a little role play involving a hat worn by the person quoting. From there on we seem to have a succession of the great speeches with all the matter in between removed. It is marvellous language of course, though savagely butchered. Craig Pinder handles it quite well. His accent starts off much stronger when he's singing and then becomes more vaguely American and he has no problem with the verse, but he has to cope with one impassioned outburst after another with no respite in between. He pitches in strongly and maintains the momentum but without respite it levels out to become someone deranged knocking on the walls of an asylum. Not until the final bedroom scenes does he get the chance to change pace.

Moses Hardwick's very youthful Iago is charm without malevolence, rather posher than Othello; it is not easy to work out their relationship. Is he co-owner of the boat? At first he seemed to find the verse a bit of a stumbling block but rapidly gains confidence. Most of what he shares with the audience seemed to have been cut, together with his schemes involving others than Othello and what elements of humour are in the play so he presents a smiling villain with little chance to reveal the villainous. He finds Desdemona's handkerchief for himself and it is he, not his wife (who we never hear of-, knocking at the bedroom door to interrupt Desdemona's murder which seems unlikely.

Belinda Owusu's Desdemona is no longer a young rich girl transposed to the alien and very public world of a military headquarters. One can't help wondering how she could possibly have been unfaithful (unless with Iago) when Cassio is just a voice on the shore radio, but like the other two she makes an excellent stab at it. With no Emilia to confide in she shares thoughts with Iago and sings a replacement for the Willow Song, as she throws a sheet over a sort of tool chest to make her bed on board. No sumptuous erotic bed in the Military Governor's palace for her!

This is all a long way from the richness of Shakespeare's Othello. You tinker to this extent at your peril. The production left me wishing that I could see these actors in a play that retained its detail. That might have thrown up some interesting effects of the racial switch and would have given these performances a chance to develop in a proper context. This version worked only in parts for me but it seemed to hold the packed-out, largely school-age audience I saw it with. There were some titters behind me in the final scene when the credibility of the situation was in question with only Othello and Iago present beside Desdemona's body, but there would certainly have been plenty for students to discuss in the classroom when comparing performance to original text.

"Othello, or the Tragedy of Conchy Joe" is at Greenwich Theatre until 12th October, further performances Wyvern Technology College, Hampshire 13th October, The Drum , Birmingham 14th - 15th October, Havant College , Hampshire 17th October, South Downs College , Portsmouth 17th October, The Lights, Andover 18th October, Tower Arts Centre , Winchester 19th October, The Hawth , Crawley 20th October, The Bayhouse School , Portsmouth 21st October 2011.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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