(directed by Rebekah Fortune, Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, until 8 February 2014)
Othello: because one dose of Jacobean treachery and murder per week just isn’t enough. In the aftermath of the Globe’s stunning Duchess of Malfi, I headed off to sample a spot of Shakespeare on the other side of town. Although I’ve lived in the area for more than three years, this was the first time I’d been to Riverside Studios and I feel suitably ashamed. But, when I spotted this new production of Othello advertised in the local paper, I just couldn’t resist. The 1940s film noir setting was a stroke of genius: the themes of ambition, corruption and sexual jealousy fit perfectly into that mould and it was such an ideal match that I’m surprised it hasn’t been done more frequently.
Like many of you, I suspect, I studied Othello at school: my primary memory of it is the joy of being chosen to read the part of Iago (girls’ school, obviously). That gave me an abiding and possibly unhealthy appreciation of our Machiavellian antihero. Among all of Shakespeare’s characters, Iago is the one who most thrives on the connivance of the audience. His soliloquies make us complicit in his crimes and, even if we can’t condone what he does, it’s hard not to admire his skill at weaving webs of deceit. He has some justification for his actions (or so he claims). He has been a valiant soldier in the service of the Venetian state, under the command of Othello, the Moorish general whose successes have earned him respect and a certain measure of acceptance. Iago had hoped that his contribution would be recognised with a promotion, but now he has found himself passed over in favour of the well-born Cassio – a bright young charmer who has winning ways, but no experience of battle. Iago’s wounded pride eats away at itself until his whole soul is poisoned with hatred for Othello, who shows so little appreciation for his services.
Iago must have revenge: but how? Gradually an idea comes to him. Othello has recently married the beautiful Desdemona, the only child of a Venetian senator (who is apoplectic – but powerless – at the fact that his daughter has fallen in love with a Moor). Desdemona is Othello’s weak spot: he adores her, and she him. But Iago is adept at seeing the cracks in apparently perfect relationships. Young Cassio, the new favourite, has an eye for the ladies. Desdemona, for all her purity, has a fondness for her husband’s young lieutenant which can be exploited to look like something else. And, as the Venetian army moves to Cyprus with Othello at its head, the scene is set for a claustrophobic story in which desire, envy and paranoia mount up into a tragic climax for all concerned.
O! beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
(Iago, Act III, Scene 3)
The theatre at the Riverside Studios is a modest affair but, with the help of a handful of props and several billowing drapes, the set designer Libby Todd gives it a convincingly 1940s feel. As the play unfolds, the space transforms from nightclub to hotel foyer to bedroom; and the drapes come into their own as the later scenes call for eavesdropping and concealment. I saw the preview performance, mere hours after the open dress rehearsal, and so please bear in mind that the actors were still growing accustomed to their roles when I saw it. As time goes on, everything will become even smoother. However, there were already admirable performances to note.
We have to start with the eponymous character. Stefan Adegbola was an excellent Othello: he was urbane, graceful and elegant in the opening scenes, to the point that I began to wonder whether he could summon up enough of a warlike aspect to be a plausible general. But that question was answered as soon as he began his descent into paranoia and despair, when the courtliness was dashed into pieces and a simmering fury took its place. This was an Othello who had made dignity and self-control his shield against the thoughtless prejudice of his Venetian peers – and yet, in his heart, he is vulnerable enough to fear losing the affections of the woman he loves.
As Desdemona, Gillian Saker did her best to infuse character into a two-dimensional role. She did extremely well: her Desdemona is virtuous and naive, but in a way that doesn’t cloy. Saker is young enough to suggest that Desdemona is simply inexperienced: she loves her husband and wants to do all that she can to reconcile him with his friends – never dreaming that she signs her own death warrant in doing so. I found her relationship with Emilia (Gemma Stroyan) very convincing: Emilia is clearly the older, more worldly of the two and their friendship offers them both an escape from the military world of men that surrounds them. After a performance full of good-humour, Stroyan’s Emilia plays out her final scene on a different note: one of rising comprehension and horror, as she realises her husband Iago’s role in the tragedy before her.
As Cassio, Fergal Phillips was perfectly cast. He had the look of a young Douglas Fairbanks, all rippling hair and neat moustache, and he managed one of the most convincing drunk scenes I’ve seen on stage. His counterpart is the Venetian nobleman Roderigo, whose thwarted desire for Desdemona makes him Iago’s tool. By the end of the play, Max Wilson had honed Roderigo’s hangdog misery to such an extent that his mere appearance on stage was enough to provoke laughter.
And Iago himself? Well: as I suggested earlier, I am very demanding of my Iagos; and Peter Lloyd filled the role admirably. He played Iago as an amiable fellow: a man’s man, always ready with a joke at the expense of his wife, always ready to offer advice or help. It’s no wonder that Othello, Cassio and Desdemona, each in their turn, find themselves beguiled by this blunt, straightforward man who professes to have their interest at heart. With a fedora tipped forward over his eyes and an aggressively tailored suit that almost swamps his slight body, Lloyd’s Iago is a man who has learned to carefully efface himself. He becomes exactly what people want him to be. In that sense, I thought he did a grand job. My one thought might be that he could have emphasised a little more strongly the difference between the mask he wears to those around him, and the true self he reveals to the audience. Draw us in, Iago! Make us pity Othello; but also win us over to your cause – just a little…
As I said earlier, I only saw a preview and no doubt the cast will become more comfortable in their roles by the time they get into the run proper. They will also get into the language a bit more; because last night there were times when every member of the cast slipped from speaking into reciting, which prevented it from feeling as natural as it could have done. For this reason, the opening scenes felt a little stiff and self-conscious, although as the play progressed, everyone relaxed a little and warmed to it. Funnily enough some of the awkwardness reappeared in the closing scene. Part of this, I suspect, is Shakespeare’s fault. After Desdemona’s death the pace abruptly slows down, as people enter and exit, and explain to one another what has happened. I wondered whether it might have been better to cut some of the explanations and discussions in that final scene, in order to retain a sense of momentum. It would feel much more powerful if Othello’s anger led him on a helter-skelter course straight into despair, rather than going via the rational conversations he has with Lodovico and Gratiano.
However, despite these comments, I thoroughly enjoyed the play and I’m sure that it’s just going to go from strength to strength during its run. The studio setting gives it the free, experimental feel of fringe theatre and it was great to see it in so intimate a space, which made it all the more gripping and absorbing. If you happen to be around Hammersmith in the next few weeks, do try to see it. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then, must you speak
Of one that lov’d not wisely but too well.
(Othello, Act V, Scene 2)