Tuesday 25th September 2018 at Harrogate Theatre.
As far as modernising Shakespeare goes, this production is pretty top notch. Why? Because it feels fresh and authentic, with modernisation taking shape in costume, set and some subtle behaviours as opposed to being shoe-horned into the script in obtuse ways. Many a production falls into that trap, but the English Touring Theatre’s take on Othello is a refreshing one which delivers on all fronts while absolutely doing justice to Shakespeare’s work. Othello is a tale of suspected cuckolding, or in modern terms, cheating. The play also carries additional resonance as an early example of infuriating double standards, institutional racism, prejudice and hypocrisy; Othello is accepted as a senior within the military – fit to fight and die for his leaders, but not to be a part of their society. Therefore, his connection to Desdemona, daughter of Brobantio (an imperious Christopher Bianchi does a stellar job of reminding us just how dire life was for women beholden to men) is already playing with fire, so it only takes false friend Iago’s vindictive spark to bring a volatile situation to certain madness. Othello is one of Shakespeare’s greatest works and for me, marks his best venture into psychological turmoil…Victor Oshin is undoubtedly perfectly cast as Othello; authoritative, assured, infatuated and tormented across the performance, with each stage of Othello’s woeful journey played equally well. Othello’s early confidence invites us to root for him in his quarrel with Desdemona’s father, but Oshin’s performance also encourages us to remember that even when villainous and cruel, Othello himself is a victim of laying trust at the wrong feet. Desdemona often seems to be played as just the chaste woman who sits quietly awaiting bidding, but Kitty Archer gives Desdemona a real sense of fun and ease here, casting her as the light and joy not just of Othello’s world, but everyone’s. She’s also a delight without being sickly sweet or over-played towards childishness, and that’s a brilliant combination for a classic maiden-as-victim, giving the character enough flair and personality to make us smile at her playfulness and bristle at her mistreatments. The modern take on the relationship between Othello and Desdemona gives us something really special: a fun romantic couple at the centre of a tragedy. Their relationship is tactile, playful and full of ease; piggybacks and tickling take away the underwhelming characterisations often conjured when portraying Othello as a period piece: a dull, submissive female and a domineering male. Oshin and Archer are a dream team, delivering the early sentimentality with as much energy as they communicate the shifting dynamics and emotions later on – it’s a faultless performance from both.
Men are first and foremost Iago’s puppets. Women too, but they have fewer strings attached to them than the men whom Iago has fixed with too many from which to wriggle free. Paul McEwan takes on this role as one of Shakespeare’s best painted villains and although his Iago is not as I’d expect, he’s very well crafted. McEwan takes pains to make Iago’s manipulations far more insidious and whispering than the louder, more explicit takes on Iago’s evil deeds I’ve seen from other actors. It works here because Iago is most sinister because he’s visually an ordinary dad type – a trustworthy face with a reassuringly calm tone of voice and of an age associated with stability and security, not an up and comer seeking out opportunities to climb the greasy ladder. Philip Correia’s Cassio is a likeable pawn in Iago’s game and Correia does well to play a feeling man begging without becoming pathetic. Brian Lonsdale’s failed suitor-to-Desdemona, Roderigo, however, strikes an impressive balance between being a good man wronged and something of a pathetically gullible young wannabe. A Geordie accent adds unique sparkle and comic warmth to the character at key points, as well as playing into the subtle strokes of modern, contemporary takes on Shakespeare which shirk the tradition of RP actors so prominent in productions not too long ago. Women get a tougher deal all round in Othello, but at least actresses get such fantastic opportunities to shine through Shakespeare’s hard-done-by females. Archer is of course the prime example, but as the only other pivotal female character, Kelly Price’s Emilia, wife of Iago and servant of Desdemona, is given ample opportunity to impress with scenes of fiery drama and desperate sincerity along with a little tipsy bawdy humour. Hayat Kamille takes a winning turn in brief glimpses of Cassio’s local wench, and though she be but a bedfellow kind of woman, Kamille makes it count when this symbol of male use and abuse gets to stand her ground…just before it crumbles beneath her of course…this is Shakespeare after all…
Othello is one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest, grittiest tragedies and the creative team’s take on it offers visual, visceral displays of both. Designer Georgia Lowe has produced a stark, bare set flanked on all sides by glaring strip lighting and rows of tightly positioned lights hanging above the space. Set pieces are nothing more than the basics and are removed as soon as their function is over, leaving us always with this void space which Lighting Designer Matthew Graham transforms entirely with lighting – interrogative full-wattage accompanies the most probing of scenes while moments of inner angst are played under dimmed, flickering lights. It’s all very simple on the surface, but as a concept, it’s great; almost like waiting for a crime scene to be dissected. Fight Director John Sanderman contributes some excellent high drama with gruesome death scenes and Director Richard Twyman brings it all together with purposeful, pacy transitions and engaging performances all round from a great cast.
The very best thing about this production is how natural it feels to 2018. The language is certainly Shakespeare’s but the cast put such a spin on it that it feels wholly relatable and easy. There are some more heavy-handed moments of modernisation, with an indulgently extended scene of drunken bawdiness which I wouldn’t miss were it to be scrapped, but for the most part the modernisation works best as a subtle shared approach from the cast and this production. This is engaging and well conceived Shakespeare in performance; two and a half hours of deception and tragedy played with contemporary flair and gritty, accomplished performances – catch it if you can. This production of Othello is presented by English Touring Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. It plays at Harrogate Theatre until September 29th 2018 and you can find tickets here. The show then continues to tour until November 24th 2018 and information about venues and tickets can be found here.