“O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains.”
In light of Roman Tragedies reminding us of the vast potential of what Shakespeare can be rather than the tendency towards the ‘proper’ readings of his work that we tend to get here in the UK (vast generalisations I know, but can you really argue against it…), it’s gratifying to see directors, and venues, taking the opportunity to stretch those traditional notions. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, housed within Shakespeare’s Globe, isn’t the first place you’d think of to find such a production but in Ellen MacDougall’s interpretation of Othello, we have just that.
Text updated to the 21st century (dramaturgy by Joel Horwood), key characters regendered (Joanna Horton’s Cassio is an inspired move), a contemporary soundtrack that interpolates Lana Del Rey, it is enough to make any purist shiver and you kinda feel that’s the point. MacDougall refocuses the play on masculinity in crisis but it is also tempting to think that on a larger scale, there’s a smidgen of Emma Rice’s shaking of the branches of theatrical orthodoxy at play here too. With the post of Artistic Director of the Globe being advertised again, we can only hope such invention remains.
For it is an inventive take on the play. Natalie Klamar’s distinctive Desdemona and Thalissa Teixeira’s fantastic Emilia (almost reaching the heights of Alexandra Gilbreath’s definitive (for me) performance) foreground its feminism; Sam Spruell’s Iago is less a silky orator than a brutal bully of the Trump variety who bulldozes Kurt Egyiawan’s Othello into the morass of sexual jealousy that is his undoing. And in the atmospheric surroundings of this playhouse, MacDougall and designer Fly Davis play expertly with darkness, throwing previously firmly-held certainties into fresh doubt.
But though this is a world steeped in racism and misogyny, it is one that brings those sentiments to the fore sensitively, exposing their systemic hold in this military garrison, in Shakespeare’s England, in contemporary society. The men pull on pronounced cod-pieces to initially amusing effect but there’s no mistaking the brutality of their posturing, the blurring of scenes into each other emphasise the manipulations (Iago nips into the audience to watch his handiwork play out) and the victimisations (Desdemona and Emilia are onstage throughout the second act, wordless witnesses to their plight).
MacDougall’s move to the Gate is an ideal match of visionary and venue but here she shows just how much she has to offer British theatre, encouraging more and more theatres to be more adventurous when it comes to tackling Shakespeare for the umpteenth time.