Union Theatre, London – until 6 April 2019
Closing Phil Willmott’s ‘Enemies of the People’ 2019 Essential Classics season is Shakespeare’s classic Othello, following in the footsteps of Arthur Miller’s An Enemy of the People, and new musical, CAN-CAN! This production marks the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, with events set in the British Raj.
With something like Shakespeare there can be a temptation to bend and stretch the story to fit a concept that you’re keen on, or a part of history that’s quite potent – unsurprising, really, given that these plays have been around for over 400 years and are performed regularly across the globe.
A desire to innovate is fine, as only really boring people want a play to be performed in exactly the same way every single time, but you do need to be sure of what your intentions are in so doing: do you want to explore a theme in more depth, give women and people of colour an opportunity to take on different roles, highlight the parallels between the present and Shakespeare’s time? Or is it a change for change’s sake (and potentially a provocative move)?
By and large I think Willmott’s choice of setting is a good one; the British presence in India is an awful yet interesting period in history, so if it initiates a desire in audience members to read more about events (specifically the massacre) then that’s definitely a good thing – plus it slightly explores colonialism as well as racism. It also fits quite neatly with the idea of Othello being a great asset to the State when it’s to their advantage, and an easy person to wash their hands of quickly once he becomes a liability.
Iago’s jealousy and plotting can come to the forefront a bit more here, as it becomes a bit clearer as to why he wants to bring Othello down: he can’t believe he’s classed as inferior to a man from the country his empire is occupying. It’s just that bit more obvious to us in the 21st century, with no clue about the geopolitics of Venice and Cyprus which are depicted in the original play.
All that being said, the production doesn’t quite live up to its promise. The insistence of keeping in some incredibly long scenes cancels out a lot of the hard work of transposing the action to a new setting, as you end up just lost in the words and all the aesthetics become almost superfluous. There really is nothing wrong with cutting a Shakespeare play down! (Ignore the purists.) Some great tension gets built up, but then is slowly disintegrated as seemingly never-ending scenes (often two-handers) put the brakes on – it gets to the point where you wonder why Desdemona doesn’t just run away and live to tell her tale, as she’d have had plenty of time to do so by the time her errant husband stopped posturing. I’d also advocate cutting nearly every instance of the word ‘strumpet’ (it appears more than you might think), as it’s now received as quite a comedic term – nothing destroys drama like the overuse of a funny word.
One big positive is the set design from Justin Williams and Jonny Rust; undoubtedly the best of the whole Essential Classics 2019 season, it clearly evokes India in its architecture, foliage, and warm colour scheme. The piano at the side is a nice touch, bringing in the music hall leanings of early 20th century music, and there are some immediately identifiable designs in the costume department (Penn O’Gara). Visually speaking, a real treat.
Performances from the company of nine ranges from distinctly average to singularly brilliant. A few of the cast are guilty of gabbling their lines out at a frantic pace; there were too many occasions where I was straining to work out what was being said. To me, this is further evidence that text needed to be cut, so actors don’t feel the need to rush through it – for some audience members this could be their first Othello, and if they can’t follow it then it’s going to be an even longer evening for them. Maximilian Marston provides some light relief as Roderigo – in fact, his foppery makes me think he could be an excellent Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Opposite him in one of the plots weaved throughout the play is Rikki Lawton as the scheming Iago. Lawton is truly excellent; he is an absolute treat in every one of his scenes, switching masterfully between comedy and darkness. His demonic look at the end after he declares “From this time forth I will never speak word” is something to behold.
Photo credit: Scott Rylander
My verdict? A concept full of promise that ultimately fails to deliver the punch it was aiming for – it’s simply too long to make enough of an impact.
Othello runs at the Union Theatre until 6 April 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.
Tags: Enemies of the People, Essential Classics, Jonny Rust, Justin Williams, London, Maximilian Marston, Off West End, Othello, Penn O’Gara, Phil Willmott, review, Rikki Lawton, shakespeare, theatre, Union Theatre, William ShakespeareCategories: all posts, review, shakespeare, theatre
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