Edinburgh Fringe 2015
A very strong take on a deceptively difficult Shakespeare text, this play of war, male pride and deception is electrified when delivered by an all-female cast: which is significantly more than a reverse-gender gimmick ..
A minor quibble for this reviewer is that the production is perhaps too reverential to the source text: Othello and Iago – and others – are referred to as men, and indeed, all the parts are played as essentially male when there is no obvious reason not to claim this all female cast as representative as an all-female universe. The performances are all so good that the reverse-gender casting becomes quickly irrelevant to one’s enjoyment and engagement of the play, so it seems like a missed opportunity not to have all the women actually playing female parts. That said, I have every faith that this was a conversation repeatedly had in rehearsals, and I have enough trust in Smooth Faced Gents that they’ve made absolutely the right choice for their production.
While it’s true that the script arguably occupies itself with the challenges of male communication and chest beating, the fact that each part is being played by a woman allows the audience to strip back their reactions of such interpretations and simply respond to the words being said. Certainly the audience on this occasion were expressing the same kind of frustrated rage that Shakespeare himself would have wanted to elicit in the original crowds, frustrated by how easily Othello was manipulated by Iago. The performances are all exemplary, playing characters rather than some kind of reverse-gender gag. So successful are they are making you forget that the parts are originally written for men, that when an actor appears as a woman – through the medium of simply wearing a oversized skirt over the army fatigues, the eye drags on it, and it’s immediately noticeable. The sweaty wooden interiors of the bars, along with a fair amount of ‘man-spreading’, are all subtle reminders of how these men behave. Whether it is getting involved in another man’s personal life, or an actual military campaign, it’s all about an occupation of space.
Anita Joy Uwajah’s Othello is compelling and graceful. The editing of the script does her no favours, but she still commands attention beloved by her officers. All of her scenes are underpinned with quiet intelligence and composure – even in those sequences when she finally loses such attributes, surrendering to her suspicions. Ashlea Kaye as Iago is supremely clever casting – fresh and innocent faced, with a shrewd intelligence in her / his eyes. It’s easy to believe both Iago’s ability to drip mistrust into Othello’s ears, as well as his tightly bundled frustrations.
Above all, this is significantly accessible Shakespeare: clear-eyed and direct. Early scenes have a lot of comedy in them, softening audiences up for the more demanding scenes later. There may well be some important point to be made here about how there are not nearly enough important roles for women, either in classic or modern texts. This group succeed because they treat the question as almost incidental. The Smooth Faced Gents are vital, compelling and smart. You should see them: without agenda.