Cut to 100 minutes and with a cast of seven actors, this Othello immediately sparked my interest by having three Iagos (Michael C Fox, Orlando James, Jeremy Neumark-Jones), a kind of weird, watching and waiting chorus.
It is, of course, possible to present Shakespeare’s work in any form and time period. Othello remains as problematic as ever due to racist and misogynistic undertones, but this production promises clarity and simplicity.
A couple of roles are bracketed for the same performer: Brabantio/Cassio (Ryan O’Doherty), and more successfully because of the depth of both characters, Roderigo/Emilia (Rachel-Leah Hosker).
As we begin with Desdemona’s flight from her father’s house into marriage with ‘the Moor’, the African soldier he had welcomed as friend, we already know that Iago is duplicitous and dishonest.
As Othello’s ‘ancient’ plots a revenge for being passed over for promotion, as well as unfounded jealousy at the unlikely adultery of his wife, we watch his poison plot unfold at speed, the viper stabbing its venom while maintaining an affable exterior with others.
We are not in any particular time – clothing is modern, but transport (a sea voyage, dangerous and strenuous, is depicted with light (designed by Alex Lewer), effects and physical intensity) and lighting are not. A lack of technology makes the presence of ‘proof’ easy to create and for fools such as Rodrigo and Emilia to be duped.
Rose Riley’s Desdemona is no shrinking violet or naive innocent, either, with her brisk indignity in reaction to her husband’s accusations proving her to be the core of emotional strength. This makes her tragic trajectory feel more harsh and unjust.
The three Iagos are all played by white actors, which is a bit of a missed opportunity, but are clearly distinguished from each other with Fox almost regretful, James a bit of a bruiser and Neumark Jones the most vicious. They are sometimes in unison, at other two watch while one takes the lead.
Martins Imhangbe’s Othello is quickly played and manipulated, especially in a truncated version that trims characters and scenes. He is passionate for both wife and war, yet undone by his own insecurities. An outsider even to those who may respect his rank.
Sinead Rushe directs a fresh, energetic, and innovative take on the play in Natalie Pryce’s red set, which hints at the anger, lust, and violence that characterises the story.
Characters slip in and out of shadows; moments of transition are played in sudden, short blackouts. Ali Taie’s superb sound design involves headset microphones, fragmented voiceovers, and more.
I have seen many Othellos on stage and screen, the most recent being Frantic Assembly’s modern nightclub version, which played just up the road at the Lyric Hammersmith (review here). Every one adds something new to my appreciation of this play.
This production aims to open up the play and its motives, but on leaving, I heard a few people filling in the gaps in the plot to friends in conversation. Some of the audience also found amusement in Iago’s twisted idea of loyalty and love, which was interesting.
For me, there are moments of clarity and some excellent technical touches that keep a well-worn text full of interest. I missed the absence a few key lines, but the constant repetition of ‘honest’ by the Iagos is like a hammer to the heart, and the unholy trinity suggests psychosis and even a touch of regret.
Image credit: Mark Douet