Thursday, 25 May 2017

REVIEW: Othello at Wilton's Music Hall

The villain: we love him, we hate him, we can’t stop talking about him – or her! Amongst Shakespeare’s plays, I believe Iago in Othello has surpassed Richard III as the worst villain for me. This is because you can never exactly put your finger on why he is acting the way he is: lying, manipulating, pushing to murder and destroying. While Richard warns us from the start why he is cruel, Iago just uses the word “hate” and lets our imagination go wild.

Othello, currently showing at Wilton’s Music Hall, is the story of the Moor of Venice, a Venetian and Muslim army general on the way to Cyprus with his troops to beat the Turkish enemy. He has just married Desdemona, a Christian, fair and energetic young woman and they are madly in love. While their marriage was at first cause for concern, notably for Desdemona’s father, Othello has assimilated to Venetian and Christian life and convinces him by his charisma and strong presence. Iago, Othello’s standard-bearer, hates him so much he manipulates him in believing his wife is cheating on him. The tragic play moves between scenes of war strategy and the love story.

The squared arena stage calls our attention and allows actors to enter from all sides and surprise the audience. I enjoyed the lighting design by Matthew Graham: light was sometimes streaming down from the ceiling and from the sides, and at other times dimmed to bring in romanticism before going completely dark, with only a flashlight giving strange shapes to Iago’s face towards the end of the play.

The types of music throughout the play contrasted sharply, going from hard rock or punk to Cypriot songs. The latter are performed beautifully by Norah Lopez Holden and Katy Stephens, who bring warmth and serenity to the whole space. The former, however, marks the toxic masculinity that is present in the army. During a sequence in the first half of the show, lights are dimmed and music blasts during one of the soldiers’ nights off. I almost thought the wrong cast had just walked in! This sequence contrasted so strongly with what we had seen so far. Between alcohol, masturbation and perhaps bullying, I believe this shook everyone up. 

You can feel when a director is having fun with a show, and I truly felt this with Richard Twyman. He put a wonderful cast together, one cast member better than the next, and took the themes presented by the play, such as religion, power, jealousy and masculinity very far. I personally enjoy stripped down Shakespeare, and this modern take on love and trust of your neighbour worked well.

Abraham Popoola in the title role had a tall and strong physique that made him command the stage through his body as well as his charisma. He demanded respect and was full of love, which made his downturn so sad. 

Mark Lockyer was simply excellent as Iago. Between the clarity of his speech,
his deep voice which never let us miss a beat and especially his speeding up at nervous moments, he was a joy to watch and listen to. My theory about Iago, after watching this production, is that his hate for Othello is not about race, far from it: it is his yearning for young love, for the seduction. He has an urge to be alive, and his age and mediocre profession as well as his marriage to Emilia are not fulfilling him. I believe he is jealous of Othello. Thus, he spirals into a sea of lies, but what is disconcerting is that he never seems to hesitate, and probably actually enjoys Othello’s company.

Norah Lopez Holden as Desdemona brought a modern touch to the couple through her physicality. She was confident and intrigued the audience throughout. Her scene with Emilia (Katy Stephens) was my favourite part of the evening, with the two women drinking, dancing and singing on deserted dinner tables. The feminine intimacy and musicality of that scene were relaxing. What is more, Desdemona singing a Cypriot song reminds us that wherever you are from, we can all sing the same songs.

This open feeling however is stopped as the purer characters do not survive in this play. And as we know today, different cultures coming together continues to be a hot topic that is constantly around us. 

This is a strong production with a fantastic cast and new interpretations to a classic text. 

Review by Sophie Tergeist 

Rating: ★★★★

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