Othello – Riverside Studios, London

Reviewer: Dulcie Godfrey

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Sinéad Rushe

400 years after the publication of Shakespeare’s first folio, Othello’s terrifying descent into murderous paranoia is reimagined in a fresh and imaginative production at Riverside Studios Director Sinéad Rushe offers an intimate and captivating, but at times faltering, production of Othello that impresses in equal measure to its disappointments.

An audience on three sides watch each other witnessing Othello’s downfall in an intimate theatre space. Othello (Martins Imhangbe) and Desdemona (Rose Riley) fill the space with their honeymoon happiness before Iago, watching ominously from the corners of the audience, sets on destroying it. The stage floor is simply red polished concrete, and the staging and props are minimal to match this respectfully pared-down production. Cutting the running time to 90 minutes works in the show’s favour, giving the play an urgency that highlights the tragedy further, but it does seem to join a trend of new productions refusing to have an interval, no doubt impacting the drink sales of theatre bars across London.

Rushe has morphed the Machiavellian Iago into a strange chorus of three, played by Michael C. Fox, Orlando James and Jeremy Neumark Jones. This works beautifully at times, offering an interesting and rare version of Iago in conversation with himself. It provides a unique display of vulnerability, giving a further dimension to a traditionally simply cruel and quick character. At one moment we see Iago hunched at the back of the stage, voice whispered and then amplified by a microphone with doubts about his maniacal plan, and then swiftly comforted by the other Iagos. At Iago’s most evil, three performers become a mob that echoes Othello’s worst nightmares over and over, taking turns wearing him down until there’s nothing left.

But at other times, three Iagos feel totally unnatural. The effort to appear as one battles with Shakespeare’s verse in a particularly jarring way, especially during the normally entertaining interactions with Rodrigo. Suddenly one of Shakespeare’s most recognisable and biting villains feels like three gilet-adorned ‘lads’ who work for a tech start-up at after-work drinks. In these less impressive moments, one powerful character suffers as three mediocre and confusing ones.

The sole consistently impressive performance comes from Martins Imhangbe as Othello. Powerful, and vulnerable, Shakespeare’s prose washes around his mouth with effortless beauty and makes for a captivating performance throughout. Rose Riley’s Desdemona at times matches this performance, but at others is hesitant.

While editing Shakespeare’s play into a shorter one is an asset to this production, how it is cut down undoubtedly impacts the female characters more. The soft intimacy between Desdemona and Emilia (Rachel-Leah Hosker) is completely lost, and in fact, any dimension to Emilia’s character has gone past her role as a plot device to Othello’s building paranoia. Not to disparage Hosker’s performance, as her Rodrigo is solid and entertaining.

Strange and terrifying soundscapes, at times created and built by the performers themselves, accompany Iago’s calculating persuasions and adds compellingly to Othello’s mounting despair. But the promised ‘original music composed and performed by Michael C. Fox’ emblazoned on the front of the poster seems oversold, as at most we get a jaunty wedding song and a soft melody to Shakespeare’s Sycamore Tree lyrics in Act 4. But what music is performed seems well considered and is effectively moving.

Sinéad Rushe has succeeded in doing something genuinely unique and effective with a play so regularly performed, which is a huge success in itself. But unfortunately, inconsistency saturates and undermines what at times is a hugely powerful production. Worth a watch for its thought-provoking performances, but in short this Othello is held back from being truly brilliant.

Runs until 29 October 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Impressive but inconsistent

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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