Writer: William Shakespeare
Adaptor/Director: Phil Willmott
Reviewer: David Guest
The centenary of the infamous and shocking Amritsar Massacre in India is the springboard for the bold and imaginative reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Othello at the Union Theatre.
Written at the beginning of the 17thCentury, the play has often been given contemporary styling to focus on the issues of race , tolerance and the attitude towards outsiders, though it is worth being reminded that Shakespeare himself was being extraordinarily brave in presenting a black character in Elizabethan England as someone of nobility rather than as a villain, which had generally been the case in art and literature.
Director Phil Willmott has dreamed up an audacious and confident new version of the tragedy which uses the same central themes of love, jealousy, deceit, racism, suspicion and manipulation but transposes them from Venice to India during the period of the British Raj.
Not every contrivance hits the bulls-eye, though it can be said that they nearly all hit the target; the creativity is never allowed to be a mere production gimmick but every idea is seen through and plays out sensibly.
So, the unorthodox starting point for this production is Britain’s colonial rule of India, which history now almost uniformly paints as a shocking and shameful period. The moment we enter we are met by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s stunning set, conjuring up a Jewel in the Crown type of romantic nostalgia so at odds with the traumatic realities of colonialism, consequences of which are highlighted through the play. Everything about this production – the sights, the sounds, even the smells – underlines the sense of place and time. Zoe Burnham’s lighting and Julian Starr’s sound are characters in their own right.
Far from being a noble Moor, this Othello (a considered performance by Matthew Wade) is one of the educated Indians fast-tracked to higher military ranks, probably beyond their ability. A background synopsis by the director in the programme (definitely required reading beforehand) suggests that this scheme was a disaster and Wade cleverly gives the impression of a general all too aware of his shortcomings, with the slightest nudge toppling him into chaos. There is no shadow of doubt that he is the outsider in his own country, facing bigotry, prejudice and isolation from all echelons of the ruling class.
It would be interesting in context were there more fellow Indian characters to react and respond to Othello as there were evidently big divisions among them, but this is limited to Bianca (Megan Grech), a classy prostitute with a revolutionary streak, who has little direct contact with the title character.
It is with Rikki Lawton’s powerful, malevolent, Machiavellian Iago that we have one of the best performances on a London stage at the moment. Imagine a sinister, sociopathic version of Private Walker in Dad’s Army and you’re close to the compelling villain that Lawton creates. He is a Jack the lad orderly able to supply recreational drugs at a price who is likeable even after losing his temper. Small in stature, this is a true Brit who has every reason to be annoyed about an inexperienced Padre being promoted to a military command or a despised native being given leadership and authority. He is all smiles and intrigue, listening in to every conversation, weighing up outcomes and consequences of nefarious planning. He even manages to look coy on being described as honest. It is an electrifying performance that makes more sense of Iago than even some of the greatest classical actors have achieved.
Desdemona remains the paragon of virtue she should be, though there are moments in Carlotta de Gregori’s winning portrayal where you wonder if her marriage to Othello is done purely out of love or more of a feisty challenge to her father’s authority and to the expectations of society. In this version her father is also the Duke, with Jeremy Todd playing a combination of the play’s original characters to create a scandalously racist Viceroy, displaying xenophobia not a million miles from the attitudes of certain present day world leaders.
A splendid touch is making Cassio a British Army chaplain and Jerome Dowling strikes a fine balance between the man of God and the temptations of the world. This gives an added dimension to the friendship between the “Mohammadan black ram” (as Othello is described early on) and the naive lieutenant more schooled in offering pastoral support to colleagues than to being a battle commander.
There are strong performances from Claire Lloyd as a down to earth Emilia, who is rather drawn to her bad boy husband (there’s a great moment when Iago slaps her in an argument and her response is wide-eyed excitement rather than fear of a bully); Maximilian Marston as a caddish but easily duped Roderigo; and Kit Carson as a Montano keen to maintain the status quo, however deplorable.
This production of Othello successfully shows us a world where domestic drama has national ramifications, as storm clouds gather over the Empire and not just the characters involved.
Perhaps you have to know too much of what Phil Willmott is thinking and trying to do in advance – not everyone in the audience will read the historical scene-setting, however fascinating it may be, nor the plot’s presumptions about what has happened before the play begins. Maybe there is an element of needing to know the original to appreciate fully. But it’s all too easy to nitpick such a courageous and thrilling new insight into a classic that should have every school and college studying the play queuing for tickets. It’s a daring and intense evening of drama at this adventurous venue which will leave you breathless.
Runs until: 6 April 2019 | Image: Scott Rylander