DramaReviewShakespeareShakespeare 400South West

Othello – The Northcott Theatre, Exeter

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Richard Twyman

Reviewer: Charlotte Robson

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory open their performance of William Shakespeare’s iconic tale of envy with a stark and empty set, its barren floors and deceptively cavernous depth laying the scene for an Othello every bit as sharp – and as tragically hollow at its core.

The heart of Shakespeare’s tragedy lies in its players, and in that regard this production cannot be faulted. Abraham Popoola, a newcomer to STR and fresh RADA graduate, is a marvellous Othello, embodying simultaneous strength and instability with supreme confidence and flair. With support from Nora Lopez Holden’s dainty, lively Desdemona, this production achieves what few can do, and provides genuine chemistry between the doomed pair that can be difficult to generate from Shakespeare’s original material alone. They are reinforced competently by the secondary cast – Brian Lonsdale’s hilariously affable and idiotic Roderigo and Katy Stephens as Emilia are standouts, their impact far surpassing their minimal presence in the play overall.

Act Two is where the best of the actors’ work comes to the fore, with incredible work done particularly on the part of Popoola and Holden during the climactic final scenes – their tragic final encounter made all the more harrowing and engrossing by the superb physical work that was previously central to conveying the unbounded love of the relationship suddenly turning violent. Desdemona’s death, in particular, is certainly not a sight for the squeamish.

However, while the minimalist style of the set by Georgia Lowe is an excellent choice for keeping the focus on the brilliance of the actors, other artistic choices work less well. The lighting by Matthew Graham, while effectively conveying time and place, is at times repetitive and lacking invention, and the solitary audio cue denoting mounting tension is used infrequently and can be so distracting as to defeat its purpose. Similarly, while most of the minimal props are used to excellent effect, the presence of a poorly-tuned and randomly utilised microphone throughout Act One simultaneously breaks immersion and means the audience misses key lines as they cover their ears to stave off the microphone’s distortion.

Occasionally, bemusing choices are also made in blocking and line reading, though most are not distracting and are only noticeable when repeated more than once to garner a sense of continuity. The costuming, while in line with the play’s overall aesthetic of timeless minimalism, sadly does not help; a lack of temporal and cultural context or rich historic background displaces much of the play’s sense of self, and also denies the reader a sense of the world and time in which the players’ explosive passions erupt, entwine, and – finally – throttle one another.

Despite these flaws, STR’s Othello is a masterclass in emotional and complex characterisation. Its flaws, though minor, stand out all the more strongly against this central brilliance, which sadly renders the production overall – while raw, personal and engrossing – a little underwhelming.

Runs until 13 May 2017 | Image: Contributed

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The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. 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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