Thursday, 22 September 2022

REVIEW: Othello at the Watermill Theatre

Since William Shakespeare’s Othello was first performed in 1604 it has built up a reputation from the theatrical greats who have played the leads over the years. Paul Hart’s production boldly reimagines the story by adding modern music to draw out the emotions and themes, casts the scheming Iago as a woman and sets the whole play in a modern military base in Cyprus. It creates a vibrant exploration of its themes of domestic violence and the clawing desire for power and control. Each of the lead characters needs to portray both the external presentation of their position but also their inner selves so the play is less about race and more about basic human nature and desire.    

Sophie Stone, a founder of the deaf and hearing ensemble theatre company, dominates the stage as the scheming antagonist of the piece, Iago adapting her style to each encounter to create maximum influence over the manipulable persona she meets. From her loutish ensnaring of Rodrigo (Ediz Mahmut) to her seductive controlling of Emilia (Chioma Uma) and misleading guidance of Cassio (Yazdan Qafouri) she slowly and effectively draws the net around Othello with an obsequiousness feigned loyalty. As she says “I hate the moor” but only we can see this as her plotting evolves. We obsequiousness don’t need to hear Billie Ellish’s “Bad Guy” to know that her villainy is at the heart of this story.

Othello, played by Kalungi Ssebandeke is no match for her plotting and is at his best in the powerful scenes that close each act as his jealousy and murderous intent bubble to the surface with intensity and great physicality. Opposite him, Desdemona (Molly Chesworth) seems subdued and slightly aloof, and we never really feel her beguiled passion for him but see a rather timid and nervous woman. Only in her final overwhelming scene as she lets her hair down while waiting for his arrival does she finally reveal her innocent love for him making the shocking smothering of her in her bed all the more powerful.

There is excellent support from Augustina Seymour as Desdemona’s emotional mother Brabanzia and Benedict Salter as the authority figures of The Duke of Venice and Lodovico. Both speak the lines with a clear powerful voice that establishes a central theme of the conflict between personal lives and professional duty. The clarity is in contrast to some others who rush their lines or speak without variation of pace or level.

The Co-Directors Paul Hart and Anjali Mehra have done a brilliant job in updating the story with Karia Marie Sweet’s adaption integrating the Watermill’s stock-in-trade technic of actor-musicians elegantly, keeping the action flowing smoothly and using the various levels and entrances well in the storytelling. The musicians are generally kept to the wings (although occasionally distract as they take up their positions ahead of the scenes) but the choice of songs and the way they are fitted into the narrative is very successful especially in the songs “Dream a little dream”, “Jealous” and “Killing me softly” giving the production its modern updated feel and reinventing the narrative. There were hints of BSL signing in some of the choreography and this might have been developed more as a natural addition to the updating of the show.

The set design by Ceci Calf almost resonates with the TV game show The Cube as the key scenes unfold within and cleverly use sliding corrugated iron panels and black nets as well as spinning slowly to set the interior scenes. Although it takes up a large portion of the intimate Watermill stage and occasionally cramps the forestage space it is a very effective device and with excellent lighting by Ali Hunter sets the location and mood for each scene well. The costumes were simple, evocative of the military style of recent conflicts and mainly in black and white tones with a hint of sparkles and colour during “Mr Brightside”.

In sharp contrast to the RSC’s recent reimaging of All’s Well That Ends Well, the Watermill has wonderfully reinvented this Shakespearean tragedy breaking with pre-perceptions and conventions to give the narrative a modern feel, focusing not on the human characteristic of love and the desire for power that drive behaviours. Iago’s villainous entrapment and manipulation of all she meets and Othello’s destruction from admired commander to broken man hint at the undermining of authority by media fake news and the destruction of society that results. It provides a brilliant updating of Shakespeare’s four-hundred-year-old words and an engaging retelling of this intimate and emotional narrative.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row E | Price of Ticket: £35 
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