Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Jude Christian
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
This co-production between Lyric Hammersmith and HOME could so easily be all concept and little content, given that it is pretty much what you might imagine from the title. Heavily abridged, the two plays are performed back to back with the same cast, drawing some neat parallels while retaining their individual integrity. Where it could so easily fall into the trap of being too clever for its own good, OthelloMacbeth instead condenses two great plays into two and a half hours, and plays them pretty straight.
So straight in fact, that the whole of Othello is played on a bare stage with a stainless steel backdrop, with minimal props and casual, contemporary costumes. The focus is on the text, with strong performance from the whole cast as they play out this simple tale of love, jealousy and tragedy. The simplicity brings home the personal nature of the play, the powerful bonds between a group of friends and lovers, culminating in an intense and senseless feeling of loss.
At the end of the first half, there is a beautifully crafted transition to Macbeth, which is so delightfully done that you’re left wanting more of this blurring between the two plays, something which only recurs once or twice. Better than overdoing it for the sake of it though.
Macbeth is the less successful half of the production. Up goes the stark, beautiful and impervious backdrop to reveal a minimal set peppered with incongruous objects. Again, Jude Christian chooses to direct it pretty straight, but squeezing this more lofty plot by more than half disrupts the arc of the narrative and makes it hard to believe in the motivation to murder. Before you know it Duncan is dead and everything’s going downhill.
Much of Basia Bińkowska’s design is brilliant (the Othellobackdrop, the basic costumes, the industrial walkway above the stage) but it somehow loses its way. The second half sees the sudden addition of props and extra bits of unnecessary costume, and the starkness that makes the first half so powerful is compromised.
Performances are strong throughout. The neat doubling up across the two plays works well, with the exception of Caroline Faber as Lady Macbeth who is rather shoehorned into the first half of the production in no more than a cameo and who feels like a bit of an interloper in the second. It would have been more satisfying to see Grace Cookey-Gam, who plays the official, measured Lodovico in Othello make a significant switch to play the queen.
Samuel Collings delivers a suitably sneaky and uncompromising Iago, shedding the charm often added to the part. Ery Nzaramba’s Othello is convincingly tortured, but the really watchable performances here are both from Sandy Grierson – as the amiable and put-upon Cassio in Othello(complete with perfectly executed comedy drunk acting) and then stepping up to the title role in Macbeth with all the necessary gravitas.
There are parallels drawn here between the two plays but seeing them back to back actually makes visible their inherent difference – Othello’s powerful focus on the personal makes Macbeth’s hefty ambition and hunger for power seem all the more global – and all the more distasteful. This alone makes the structure here an interesting and enjoyable new take on two well-worn plays.
Runs until 29 September 2018 | Image: Helen Murray