Writer: William Shakespeare
Adaptor: Dzifa Benson
Director: Miranda Cromwell
Before the play, the small but excited audience at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate is treated to a range of 90’s dance classics including Pump up the Jam by Technotronic and Gypsy Woman by DMA (the La da dee song!): there is a reason for this. As the preshow music goes down and the lights dim we hear a loud cheer from the cast hidden on stage. We all feel we should join in; we’re back in a live theatre, and this is a very bold and bright opening to a provocative reimagining of Shakespeare’s 1604 play of misogyny, racism and jealousy.
But there is not a cod-piece in sight. This Othello, performed by the Rep Company of the National Youth Theatre, is set in Club Cyprus, a Manchester rave club in the 1990s. Dramatist Dzifa Benson and director Miranda Cromwell have not only updated the story but pared it back to its barest bones. This Othello runs at a slimline 90 minutes without an interval. The pacing of the drama is very well-measured and the committed ensemble cast clearly feel connected to this version of the Bard’s tale reimagined for their modern, gender-fluid culture.
As the play begins, we learn that Othello (Francesca Amewudah-Rivers), an openly queer black woman and head of security at Club Cyprus, has recently married Desdemona, the white daughter of Brabantio, a local criminal gang boss (a snarling Jack Humphrey) without his knowledge. Iago, one of Othello’s security guards has already had his nose put out of joint having been overlooked for promotion in favour of the younger, more educated Cassio (Ishmel Bridgeman) and starts to plot to use knowledge to his advantage to bring down Othello.
Recasting Shakespeare’s many male protagonists with female actors is not new. Many directors have looked to the likes of Maxine Peak, Glenda Jackson, Tamsin Grieg, Kathryn Hunter and Harriet Walter to reimage Shakespeare’s masculine originals through a more feminine prism; Sandra Bernhardt first played Hamlet in 1899, both in Paris, then in London and Stratford. Some of these performances have seen the actor assume the male character, some have reimagined the character as female; all have attempted to bring something new to our understanding of these archetypes of male behaviour.
This production actually aims to highlight the misogyny of Iago and his friend Rodrigo by casting Othello as a female (not a female actor playing the character as male). Now there are two females at the heart of the story to be manipulated. When you know the fate of these female characters, and that of the principal antagonist Iago, this does not make for easy watching, and certainly raises, as the writers hoped, the spectre of contemporary domestic violence.
The performances of the young actors are generally good. If Amewudah-Rivers lacks a level of physical presence (I never bought her as an actual security guard) she speaks with clarity and energy, her thoughts clear and decisive. As her antagonist, Iago, Connor Crawford makes the most of his narration-style soliloquies to the audience and stays just the right side of not slipping into pure evil. He does occasionally gabble his words but this is nevertheless a promising performance. Desdemona has always been the most underwritten of the characters and it feels here that the adaptation has stripped away even more of her narrative: Alexandra Hannant does the best she can with surprisingly little material. We know she loves Othello and then it seems an hour later she’s being accused of adultery without seeing anything through her eyes.
The strongest performance comes from Julia Kass as Desdemona’s friend and (somehow!) Iago’s wife Emilia. Kass exudes confidence as a physical actor and demands your attention. Emilia’s journey from Iago’s pawn to Desdemona’s sole defender is very well plotted out, and her diction is crystal clear, allowing every word of Shakespeare’s final scene to land with great meaning.
The rest of the ensemble has been turned into a Greek chorus that works rather well, often muttering repeating phrases to Othello to heighten the sense of her confused mental state. They are also given highly stylized rave choreography by DK Fashola and all credit to the performers who stay perfectly in character through very long, often slow-motion dance routines. Renell Shaw’s acid house-inspired score is a little too dominating; there could have been a few more moments of peace and reflection, and occasionally the balance with the spoken voices was wrong. But when the score, coupled with the movement, works it is very effective and shows us very definitely that this is pure theatre. And how refreshing it is to be able to say that at last.
Runs until 29 May 2021