Lyric Hammersmith, London – until 3 November 2018
Director Jude Christian’s othellomacbeth, two-for-one offer on Shakespearean tragedies at the Lyric Hammersmith, sounds like a bad idea. Crammed into two and half hours, there’s too much material and too little time. And yet, somehow, they manage to pull it off.
Without giving too much away, othellomacbeth is best thought of as a single, gender-based revenge tragedy of two parts. Both plays ostensibly take place within the same universe, with the events of the first half directly inspiring and colliding with those of the second.
Keeping apace of this newly created, composite experience is challenging (avoid if this is your first rodeo on the green eye’d monster). However, scenes are well-cut to accommodate the double bill and rarely feel as though they’re lurching from nought-to-dead within the space of an hour.
Until the interval comes around, Christian’s staging of Othello is entirely expositional. Macbeth picks up where Othello ends, and only after this groundwork has been laid does the real play begin.
Haunted by its predecessor, Macbeth explores the fallout following the murder of Desdemona (Kirsten Fosters). The actors play a part in both tragedies, carrying with them the trauma, iniquities and resentments of the first half.
Cassio doubles as Macbeth (Sandy Grierson), Iago as Macduff (Sam Collings), Ludovico as Lennox (Grace Cookey-Gram), and so on. Sound performances follow from Kezrena James as a pregnant Bianca and Melissa Johns in the pivotal role of Emilia.
Where Othello takes place entirely upstage, with a steel backdrop trapping the actors pressure-cooker close to the stalls, the audience become party to the claustrophobia of the play’s jolting in intensity, which cranks up scene by scene.
Brilliant performances by Ery Nzaramba as Othello and Collings’ Iago are somewhat stifled by the shallow staging and the sheer pace of the production, which leave little room for the play to work its wormy business.
When the steel backdrop is finally lifted, Basian Binkowska’s stage design – a black opal chamber, sparsely furnished, with splashes of primary colours – signals the main event.
It suddenly reveals a striking, hidden world that gapes, almost vertiginously, with the full depth of stage.
If it is possible to experience metaphor, then this is what it feels like.
Opening up in the most extraordinary way, the play that follows a deeply complex, layered version of Macbeth, uncannily repositioned and bewitchingly orchestrated by its female cast members, whose collective presence commands the stage.
Haunted by a cruelly sexualised, unmaternal society, Caroline Faber’s outstanding, visceral performance as Lady Macbeth breaks through Binkowska’s modernist façade, laying claim to the title of the play as the production staggers towards its own tragedy – which is, empoweringly, hers rather than her husband’s.
As one might expect, the plays refuse to map neatly onto one another, and the revenge plot becomes somewhat muddied as the play goes on.
To this end, some character parings work better than others. For instance, Iago’s reincarnation as Macduff seems at odds with the fate he deserves.
There is a shouty performance from Brabantio and a handful of distracting props (guns, swords, a suit of armour, and… a box of take-away pizza?).
But Christian’s Hadron-like collision of two of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies holds together surprisingly well.
If you can stomach the compromises and wait out for the second half, othellomacbeth delivers a payoff which is thoughtful, frustratingly flawed but insightful overall.
Breathlessly pacey, the production makes for a demanding watch. However, Christian rewards viewers with glimmers of something entirely distinct – a new kind of Shakespearean tragedy.
othellomacbeth runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until November 3.
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