You can’t really go that wrong with Shakespeare’s Othello. The tragedy has kept audiences gripped for centuries with high tension and a dramatic plot that leads to a bloody climax.
This modernised production at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre certainly gets it all right. Despite the hero’s downfall crashing to its inevitable tragic conclusion, it is also comical at times with some bizarre but brilliant moments. I thought that Banksy may have been involved in the creative advising at one point!
The costumes, props, stage space and choreography are paradoxically both complex and simple, to quote the stage designer Georgia Lowe, ‘ambiguous’ but with the aim of, ‘seeing Othello in its barest form.’
Othello is a very believable depiction of a life torn apart by prejudice. Set in the racist society of Venice; a western colonial power employs the newly-married Othello, a Muslim general, to lead an army against the impending Turkish invasion. The strain of fitting into a society riven by discrimination and fear soon take their toll. Manipulated by the malignant Iago, Othello’s life quickly unravels as he turns on everything he holds dear.
Victor Oshin, in his professional stage debut as Othello, is assured and commanding but shows the vulnerability of the character from the outset; he is the perfect imperfect Othello. Paul McEwan is subtle and brilliant as the relentless Iago – not an obvious villain archetype but a worn-out bitter Yorkshireman. The question of his motive builds in the viewers mind but as we reach the climax it’s almost as if he shrugs his shoulders.
Brian Lonsdale’s fool Roderigo as a Geordie chav is hilarious and squeaky-clean Cassio, played by Philip Correia, is perfect as a posho obsessed with his reputation. Desdemona’s seemingly easy confidence is stripped away while long-suffering Emelia grows in voice and her feminist speeches, ‘Let husbands know their wives have sense like them.’ become increasingly powerful. The relationship between these two female leads played by Kitty Archer and Kelly Price is played out in a complex and powerful way, especially in a brilliant scene when Desdemona sings ‘The Willow Song’ as something quite different. The relationship of Othello and Desdemona was not as intense and whether there was an intention to emphasise the child-like relationship between Desdemona and Othello instead of the passion, this is very successful. It shows their vulnerability and naivety in contrast to the world-worn couple of Iago and Emelia.
The intention in this version of the play presented by The English Touring Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, is to explicitly portray Othello as a Muslim and how this relates to modern times. How all marginalised people, ‘have to assimilate,’ and ‘mask your true self.’ Creative adviser to the production, Abdul-Rehman Malik writes in the programme how it seeks to, ‘assert Othello’s Islam’ with the aim of being subversive. There were moments when this was evoked with Arabic language and music but I felt that it could have been explored more.
The production companies realise that Othello, ‘has the power to speak afresh to each society watching.’ And that this, ‘production’s relevance to the world today feels particularly acute.’
Malik says, ‘Shakespeare could not have imagined the power and prescience that Othello holds for us today. The greatest works of art are not only a reflection of their times, but they speak to the timeless human strengths, human weakness, human struggles. That oft sited “human condition” doesn’t seem to waver much over time.’ I couldn’t agree more and this fantastic production is well worth going to see!
Othello will be at The Everyman Cheltenham until Saturday 20th October and is offering £2.50 tickets for people aged 16-25.
We were invited along to review Othello.