Writer: William Shakespeare
Adaptor & Director: Charmaine K Parkin
Reviewer: Sophie Huggins
In this notorious tale of jealousy, race and revenge, SISATA Theatre promise the audience the merging of a Shakespeare classic with 1980s Hip Hop culture, in this “radical re-imagining” of the story.
Acknowledging the audience as they come in, the cast of four tell the story of Othello, a soldier who falls in love with Desdemona much to her father, Brabantio’s dismay (although in this version he becomes Brabantia, a woman, complete with multi-coloured jacket and large sunglasses). When they get married, Othello’s ensign, and the villain of the play, Iago, triggers Othello’s downfall, convincing him Desdemona is unfaithful to him with lieutenant Michael Cassio. After much manipulation from Iago that procures violence, accusation and rage, Othello’s jealousy overtakes his genuine love for Desdemona and results in tragedy for them both. Described as a participatory performance, some of the other characters, such as Roderigo, a jealous suitor of Desdemona, and Bianca, Cassio’s love interest, are projected onto members of the audience; a clever aspect that serves as one of the most entertaining components to this production.
Inspired by the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, director Charmaine K Parkin aims to explore and compare the modern connection with class division and racism to those expressed in the play and also through Basquiat’s work. To continue this, a backdrop consisting of neon spray paints and coloured ribbon is chosen, but this feels confused and unrelated to the action. If 1980s Hip Hop is the chosen identity then the audience should be immersed in this world, yet it is only hinted at in some areas of the production design and not fully continued into the action. The costumes, designed by Maria-Helena Farah, feel amateur, rushed and unequivocally strange, from labels left on shoes to 1700s English navy to extreme 80s punk – there is a lack of continuity that is essential in convincing an audience they are in a particular place. The individual components fail to marry together as an authentic style and this is the production’s critical flaw.
With repeating patterns of clapping and stamping, and the use of drums and a guitar; music is woven throughout, yet is regretfully hidden and would have engaged its audience had it been visible. The beat, at times, enables the speech to slip into spoken word which gives the text purpose, rhythm and a different, exciting identity, yet all too soon it slips back out into usual, predictable habits. The staging, like the text, feels obvious at times and means many of the scenes roll into one.
The cast, who often multi-role other characters, are undoubtedly energetic, committed and even playful at times. However, there is a sense of naivety in their approach to these renowned classical characters as they conjure an ungrounded and hyperactive atmosphere. Stillness is often more powerful than movement; something that could be well utilised in this show. The male actors, brimming with energy and enthusiasm, often sizzle a little over the saucepan (shouting and spitting) resulting in highly emotive scenes occurring too early on in the piece. However, Alessandro Babalola as Othello has an authentic weight and presence in the room and despite peaking a little early, his tragedy is entirely believable.
Ultimately, this production fails to succeed in hiking its own version above the many that have gone before it, despite promising a show full of boldness, explosion and colour. When staging such a recognised play, this necessity to tell a different version becomes paramount as, all too easily, it can become a tedious echo of every other Othello as this production sadly proves.
Reviewed on 13 May 2017 | Image: Contributed