William Shakespeare, adapted by Painted Stage
"Men are men," utters Iago, but in Painted Stage's production this could not be further from the truth as three actresses play all of the characters in one of Shakespeare's finest tragedies.
There is a well known photograph of Sir Laurence Olivier as Othello alongside Dame Maggie Smith as Desdemona; upon her face a small black smudge of Olivier's make-up. Today such practises have disappeared and just over a year ago comic-turned-actor Lenny Henry could be seen playing the Venetian Moor. The role of Othello will always raise questions as to whether colour-blind casting can be embraced in this Shakespeare play, but when all of the actors are women, why should gender, and not colour be thrown out of the window?
The production is commendable for its approach and three actors performing all roles is a mean feat in itself - especially learning the many lines of dialogue. The company pride themselves on fresh approaches to established classics and new writing and an all female cast allows them to explore the piece from a different angle, whilst inverting the notion of an all male cast, such as would have been the case when the play was first performed. Multi-roling, as well as character-sharing, is in operation and executed with great skill, but why then, when the directorial concept seems to embrace a sense of topsy-turviness, is it black actress Vanessa Sampson that has been cast as Othello?
The directorial concept of an all-female cast is at its most interesting during character-sharing; the role of Iago, for example, is played by both Christina Carty and Bethan Clark. Here it becomes extremely clear that it is a character's actions, rather than their appearance, that are important, whilst highlighting the fact that good and bad do not have strict colour or gender binaries. Although Sampson does also play Bianca, it would have been compellingly more interesting were her fellow white actors to have shared the role of Othello, thereby focusing on his actions and intents, rather than his difference in appearance and reminding us that race is only one of the play's many themes.
Sampson commands the stage as Othello, but at times sounds as though she studied at the Brian Blessed school of acting. Like her fellow actresses, she is able to swap efficiently between characters and uses her voice and posture to denote that such a change has occurred. Simple costuming courtesy of Amy Penrose further helps to distinguish between the many characters and so it is somewhat superfluous that masks are also used. These masks are not worn on the face, but rest on Othello's chest, Iago's nape, Brabantio's walking stick and Cassio's thigh. Quite what they mean or add is unclear and, as the actors skilfully change their performance with each change in character, the masks' presence seems a little undermining to the actors' craft and patronises the audience's ability to distinguish between characters somewhat.
Bethan Clark is strong in each of her three roles, with perfect diction and, rightly, does not allow the iambic pentameter to control the way her speech is delivered. Christina Carty is also convincing as, among other roles, Desdemona, but at times appears to swallow her words and her dialogue lacks the vocal clarity of Clark's.
This is Painted Stage's inaugural production and the company must be commended on their aspirations to stage plays in new ways, but they must not be afraid to push their concepts to the limit and take risks, as this is when theatre becomes exiting and stands out from the crowd.
Playing until 16th October 2010
Reviewer: Simon Sladen