Unicorn Theatre, London – until 3 March 2018
Guest reviewer: Hailey Bachrach
Ignace Cornelissen’s Henry the Fifth, which was at the Unicorn Theatre in 2015, remains one of my favourite versions of that play ever. Setting King Henry’s French wars in a sandbox, Cornelissen simplified without dumbing-down the central themes of Shakespeare’s play.
Perhaps because the source material is more famous, his current outing at the Unicorn, Othello (translated by departing artistic director Purni Morell) sticks more closely to Shakespeare’s script, especially once the evening begins to veer into tragedy.
Cornelissen’s cheeky update of the tale of the Moorish general and the Venetian he marries begins as comedy, and the audience of school groups around me struggled somewhat with the change in tone – the shift from Lawrence Walker’s quicksilver Iago laughing at Ronald Nsubuga’s dorky Cassio’s bad dancing, to Iago attempting to suffocate Cassio on the floor 45 minutes later, is hard for them to process. The ending does feel abrupt, and I found myself wishing Cornelissen had been as willing to depart from the text here as he was in Henry.
Director Ian Nicholson keeps things simple and elegant with straightforward staging accompanied by a few moving blocks, a billowing white curtain, and a beautiful village of gently glowing tents (designed by James Button).
A striking feature of the play in contrast to the usual Othellos is that the cast is all black. Othello’s difference (played with easy charisma and hilarious bluntness by Okorie Chukwu) is figured as one of nationality and class: he speaks with an accent, unlike his subordinates and Ayoola Smart’s impudent, confident Desdemona, whose father is here presented not merely as a senator, but as the Doge of Venice (complete with funny hat).
Though this Othello skids to a slightly awkward conclusion, the performances are winning and the script charming. It’s harder to know how to reframe the complexities of envy and irrational hate in youthful terms, and though Cornelissen doesn’t always quite manage it, the result still offers and intelligent take on the classic story.