Othello: The Moor of Venice*** (Riverside Studios, 16 January 2014)

Posted: January 17, 2014 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

How often do we go to see a play and find no credit for the playwright on the posters or in the programme? Okay, so we all know who wrote this one (don’t we?), but it would be interesting to learn if the omissions for this production were due to an assumption of universal familiarity or to a cunning attempt to lure unsuspecting audiences with the promise of American popular culture and then to astound them with the riches of the Bard. If the latter, the producers have been as conniving as Iago, but their motives are surely laudable.  Recent productions of Othello at the Donmar and the National have set the bar very high and it would be unreasonable to expect a small studio version such as this to clear it. What we are entitled to expect is something fresh and imaginative and that is largely what we get. Music from the Glenn Miller Orchestra ushers us in and a torch song, weakly performed, gets things rolling. What follows is a more or less straight reading of Shakespeare’s text, but set in the 1940s and played in the style of film noir, a genre most commonly associated with Los Angeles. So here, possibly, we have the Moor of Venice Beach, although there is actually very little that feels American about the performances. Radical reinventions of classic plays, setting them in new eras and locations, can result in either triumph or disaster. Novelty alone is not enough, any interpretation needs to work in harmony with the play and shed new light on it. In this case the results are mixed. On the one hand, we have to grapple with incongruities such as characters in a 1940s American setting speaking the language of Tudor England and civilians, wearing double-breasted overcoats and trilbies, advancing to wage war in Cyprus. On the other hand, the context justifies the creation of an ambiance which rather suits the play, particularly once it has veered into melodrama. Libby Todd’s set design, with a backdrop of curtains lit in rich red, purple, green and gold evokes the film noir style well and uses simple props that are readily adaptable for multiple purposes. The staging is slick and fast moving, helped by the play having been trimmed by at least a third in a version which skims over sub-plots, all to no great loss. The diverse elements in Rebekah Fortune’s production come together perfectly for the murder scene, the staging of which is electrifying. The two great enigmas that any interpretation of this play needs to tackle are Othello’s gullibility and Iago’s motivation. Stefan Adegbola’s Othello is of modest demeanour, showing neither the intellect nor the power of a military leader. His blind acceptance of Iago’s lies and his insane jealously seem to be rooted in insecurity rather than wounded pride, but it is a performance that grows in stature, building to a stirring climax, and the actor interprets and speaks Shakespeare’s dialogue beautifully. Peter Lloyd’s Iago is a Northerner who might have wandered in from a night at the Rovers’ Return. He colludes with the audience like a loveable rogue, which suggests that his mendacity springs more from mischief than malevolence. It seems unlikely that Othello would have been seduced into buying a used car from this Iago, still less have been taken in by lies about his wife’s infidelity. Iago proclaims “I hate the Moor”, but as to whether this hatred is driven by envy, racism, psychopathy or some other force, the production gives few clues. Gillian Saker’s Desdemona, pale and with flowing red locks, is casually flirtatious, oblivious to her impending plight. Amongst the lesser roles, Gemma Stroyan, appropriately coiffed like Veronica Lake, stands out as a passionate Emilia. Coming from Orangutan, a young company, this production is occasionally uneven, but, overall, it is highly imaginative and deserves to be seen, hopefully widening the audience for its uncredited writer.

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