Othello – Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Joe Dowling

Reviewer: Liam Harrison

Joe Dowling’s production of Othello takes its cue from Iago’s (Marty Rea) early riddling statement – “I am not what I am”. This paradox, of truthfully confessing to be false, is echoed in the set design which raises questions of stagecraft and manipulation. Ricardo Hernandez’s set constructs a small stage upon the stage which Iago in particular flits on and off, reflecting his skill in influencing and moulding others who are imprisoned by their earnestness. The aesthetic licence of Rea’s Iago to drift between stages and masks does justice to Auden’s characterization of him as “the joker in the pack”.

Hernandez’s set also places around 30 audience members under the Abbey lights on either side of the stage (perhaps influenced by recent audience-on-stage successes), creating an enclosed, almost judicial space. The on-stage spectators often act as Iago’s own personal audience. He lures them on through soliloquys with his calculated phrases and alluring Belfast lilt, with the odd phrase addressed directly into an audience member’s face.

Yet the close knit-audience becomes problematic as a result of the uncertain tone of the performance. Othello (Peter Macon) never appears to rise in the first half beyond the slanderous stereotypes Iago ascribes upon him, as the ravenous ‘black ram’ too fond of ‘tupping’. Othello’s character is too external, obvious, and ‘othered’ – his over-emphasised sexual appetite, hand-gesticulations and accent overplay a difference which lacks the depth and heights of integrity to make his fall tragic.

Othello is played well by Macon, and he commands the stage powerfully with a rumbling voice and volatile movements, but the direction and trajectory of his character feels misplaced and slightly under-risen. Similarly, ‘honest’ Iago’s scheming is not quite acidic or malevolent enough, to the point where there is a nervous laughter pervading the tragic development of the production. With the presence of on-stage audience, the awkward laughter at lines with intended gravitas are not only heard but seen.

The play’s setting is Cyprus after a tempestuous battle, but the soldiers’ drinking and dancing can feel more Magaluf than military, and adds more to a mood of comedy than menace. The music in the production is also a mixed bag. There are deep drums which build throughout, creating a brooding anticipation of the violence to come with echoes of Eugene O’Neil’s The Emperor Jones. On the other hand, Desdemona’s fatal song is jarringly melodic given the strikingly minor tone of its imagery. And the speeches of Iago, the archetypal articulate villain, do not need dressing up with softly-quivering basslines.

Runs until 11 June 2016 | Image: Pat Redmond

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