Pros: Sumptuous, sensitive setting and an intensely good looking, chiseled cast create a visual feast as passionate as the narrative.
Cons: Although billed as Film Noir and 1940s, it doesn’t embed itself enough in this time period or aesthetic.
Othello is a visual feast. Set in the 1940s, a strong and uniformly attractive cast unfurl a plot of intrigue, guile and passion as luscious as the set. For a play that can be melodramatic to the point of stupidity and boredom, Rebekah Fortune manages to keep the emotional reactions realistic without underplaying the epic tragedy this play is best known for.
Libby Todd, designer of the set, is the first person who should be congratulated. A simple yet sumptuous set of careful curtaining and clever lighting creates quick scenic shifts. The curtaining is both imaginative, original and suits the aesthetic perfectly. Assisted by Eleanor Bull’s well-chosen period-specific costuming and delicate lighting choices, the surroundings allow the acting to pack a real punch.
Whilst well executed, I’m not convinced that the choice to set Othello in the 1940s is particularly well integrated. It is well established that part of Shakespeare’s appeal is that it transcends temporal specificity and hits home to human hearts universally. This means that whilst the 1940s setting is not jarring, I fail to see the benefit other than the ability to revel in a fun and lavish period. The first scene, in a salubrious bar, very well suggests that there is something to say about this story in this decade, but as soon as the scene shifts, this specificity is lost. Set in a time of war, it is surprising that WWII did not feature, even fleetingly.
It has also been billed as a Film Noir adaptation. Whilst, of course, the genre has many manifestations, I’m not convinced that there was enough shared identity to extend from 40s into Noir territory, although it does share the classification of being melodramatic and deeply cynical about sexual relations.
Sex and purity are the main obsession of the play, race is not. This focus makes it an interesting 21st Century adaptation along modern moral fault lines. The class disparity and distaste is also well aligned in the costuming in a way that is inherently British.
This is a very intelligent work, and director Rebekah Fortune and the cast should be proud of the inflections and interpretations that make this work fresh and believable. The cast are absorbing and there is a deep sense of a broader world of frivolity surrounding the action rather than politics, much like in The Great Gatsby. Although we might consider the final actions of the characters absurd by modern standards, every performer even those with smaller parts, keep it convincing, especially Gemma Stroyan as Emilia.
Although it doesn’t embed itself in the era to its full extent, this is a production that is well worth seeing . Shakespeare novices and know-it-alls alike will praise it for its clarity, cleverness and creativity.
Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Rebekah Fortune
Producer: Orangutan Productions
Booking Until: 8th February 2014
Box Office: 020 8237 1111
Booking Link: https://www.riversidestudios.co.uk/
Post Show Talks: 21, 23, 28 and 30 January, and 4 and 6 February at 5.45pm and 9.30pm.