FringeReview UK 2017
Ellen McDougall’s Othello lights the Globe’s Sam Wannamaker in Fly Davis’ uncluttered design and costumes. Orlando Gough’s close-harmony music riffs on madrigal textures, the claustrophobic period English kind; it counterpoints for instance Lan del Ray’s ‘Video Games’.
Ellen McDougall’s Othello lights the Globe’s Sam Wannamaker in the flickering Jacobean murder-scenes long-imagined, delivered here as deadly consummation. The symbolism of a large bed made and unmade as well as finally marred is virtually all the extra scenery the stage here uses, in Fly Davis’ uncluttered design and costumes – almost a suite of white-clad Columbines. We’re treated to men in codpieces, a world recognizably 1604 replete with misogyny and new bawdy as well as improving on Shakespeare to point up shock and aw… relevance.
Orlando Gough’s close-harmony music riffs on madrigal textures, the claustrophobic period English kind; when Lan del Ray’s ‘Video Games’ sung plangently by Nadia Albina’s Bianca counterpoints it, it’s just another touch of this slithery world, fluid in centuries as occasionally gender, though it’s not an enlightened gender war. At other points the ensemble swish wind effects without guying the effect.
Cassio is Michelle not Michael and though Joanna Horton makes a particularly fine raging drunk as offstage soldiers jeer at Turkey (in a shudder of apposite politics), it begs questions of the concept. A Venice and an Othello that could promote a female Cassio is a different and very interesting production. Not least because sexual betrayal with a woman might terrify Othello and his male world more, and infuriate Iago, passed over by a woman. Venice equates with fluid sexuality and as a trope such as this has Venetian webbed feet as well as legs. But perhaps not quite in this production.
The Wannamaker’s upper gallery gifts certain scenes like the candle-flickered opening with Brabantio twitted by Iago anonymously where Rodrigo opens himself to a father’s ire. Jon Foster’s Brabantio compasses paternal rigidity verging on stock farce. Despite the intimate space, or because of it, characters are etched not shaded. Foster’s excellent clarion is wasted as Montano and one’s tempted to suggest Lodovico would suit him more than the energetic Peter Hobday, youthful, light-voiced and most of the night a far less absurd Roderigo than we’re used to – it’s refreshing. He makes less of the mewling ‘I shall incontinently drown myself’ side of Roderigo’s character, and seems almost to comprehend Iago, if not his darkest ends. Hobday in fact went on as Iago early in the production when Sam Spruell was indisposed.
Spruell’s military carapace is recognizably English and he starts off a famous British song in the drinking scene. Lithe, quick-witted and improvisational his velocity hurtles both the tragedy and wrong-footing tantalisingly close to defeating itself, saved only by Spruell’s conveying how close Iago’s snares nudge ‘this advice is free I give, and honest’. Honest – servile and truthful in 1604 – is scored to spitting here. Both Desdemona and Roderigo palpably wrong-foot this Iago, Desdemona initially by avoiding traps till the handkerchief, and here Iago’s clenchingly saved by the handkerchief that damns Desdemona.
Despite some cuts notably in the final scenes, the relentless pace is what makes the evening sing in a whirl of snuffed candles, eddying with sudden humour as characters, even Othello, talks to the audience next to them.
Kurt Egyiawan’s Othello impresses with the centring of his voice, the scale and pitch of his command and sudden explosive outbursts more terrible here than we’re used to; though like others here he occasionally throws lines like ‘goats and monkeys’ over his shoulder like chicken-bones, and the velocity of the production hurries him over chasms other productions fathom. Against the ingrained comfortable laddishness of Spruell Egyiawan’s isolated, either consciously formal or flung to epilepsy. John Wain once wrote how in the central emeshment of Othello both he and Iago enter sane and exit both mad. Here, when Othello intones ‘Now are thou my lieutenant’, Iago’s literal salute ‘I am your own for ever’ parades not comedy but a kind of Mephistopholean recognition.
If we’re impressed with overwrought maleness then finally it’s the women who impress most. Albana’s Bianca is no simple courtesan but a clingy sadly knowing bundle of pathos, spirited under arrest and beyond unashamed. Thalissa Teixeira’s Emilia begins bittered by her husband and shudderingly finds her rage discovering his evil in a quick-fire inquisition of Othello. Her acceptance of her fate’s curiously at odds with this, and indeed Desdemona’s.
The latter in Natalie Klamar’s confident deposition to the senators is all of a piece, even now ‘owned’ by Othello. Answering her father back publicly, her firmness throughout and in conjunction with Emelia (where the Willow Song’s junked for a modern take) is essential. Here she doesn’t submit but fights ferociously to live, finally breathe. Nor does she return to splutter out a self-murdering lie. It’s one of the cuts that edges out the Desdemona not required here, which many in any case find improbable. Still some lines like the cathartic ‘O, enforce it’ from Lodovico are pointlessly axed.
What can be said of this, as Lodovico might frame it? Othello’s ‘one that loved not wisely but too well’ won’t do now; a blank on whom misogyny can easily write is mostly realised here. But it’s the women who render service to a tragedy mired in the perennial soldier’s fear: betrayal. ‘Else she’ll betray more men.’ When we think of Othello’s jealousy we need always to consider the consequences of military betrayal; this overwriting of sexual betrayal is the DNA of Othello’s green-eyed monster seasoned by ‘one ancient to the general’ whom he’s learned to trust in battle.
The ensemble has as with Egyiawan, Teixeira, Foster and Klamar some voices able to project, and Spruell mostly cuts through the evening. It’s a notable Wannamaker paradox that actors in the Shakespeares produced here possess less incisive voices than in many Globe productions, partly because younger actors are coming through. Invigorating, and a future mine to other productions, this Othello opens a trap door.