Pros: Makes excellent use of a small performance space, using the intimacy to heighten the drama.
Cons: Running for two hours straight, it makes for intense viewing; it’s harder to fully appreciate the closing scenes of the play having concentrated for so long.
Othello has, to me, always been Shakespeare’s most harrowing work. Romeo and Juliet is a tear jerker, but at least they had each other. And Macbeth, well – he had it coming, didn’t he? But from Brabantio’s fateful warning in the play’s opening minutes – “Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see / She has deceived her father and may thee” – an ensemble of innocent characters are led unwittingly to their graves by the Bard’s most dastardly creation: Iago.
Grassroots Shakespeare London reflect the minute time span of the play with their choice of venue; the Leicester Square Theatre barely contained its audience, seated in a traditional round format. Artistic Director Siobhan Daly took the small space in her stride. Characters moving through the audience at regular points, often standing and shouting to characters on stage, immerse their viewers in the Cyprian climate of celebration and deception.
With a particularly bare set – the final scene’s bed being the only furniture used on stage – the production relies heavily on lighting to convey location. The opening Venetian scenes blared with bold blues and reds; a stark carnival-esque contrast to the dusty yellow used to create Cyprus. This is an effective trick. Given the limited performance space, the subtle changes in lighting create the particular moods of the play’s completely contrasting locations with no clumsy disruption to the production that shuffling furniture about would have incurred.
James Alexandrou (known to most as Martin Fowler from Eastenders) was a big selling point for the performance in the role of Iago. He retains some of his Woolford roughness-around-the-edges in the role, lacing it with a jack-the-lad attitude. Playing Iago as a “man’s man” is an effective device; his comrades are visibly drawn into his deceptive traps and their faith and subsequent disappointment in him is palpable. He is, however, upstaged at times by Adam Blampied, who transforms the desperate, pathetic Roderigo into a loveably camp creation not dissimilar to Jack Whitehall.
Gently spoken for the play’s majority, Nari Blair-Mangat plays a serene Othello. His calm presence on stage contributes to the sense of tragedy when Iago finally breaks his spirit, though an instantaneous transition from this to his first terrifying, vengeful fury felt uncomfortably juxtaposed.
Annabel Bates as Desdemona was every bit the virtuous heroine, with a constant energy and playfulness that emphasised her innocence and carried the pace of the action. This was more necessary than welcome at times; Othello is short in comparison to its brothers in tragedy, but still runs for about two hours. Grassroot’s decision to do away with an interval, presumably made to avoid interrupting the building tension woven into Iago’s web of deceit, arguably had the adverse effect. By the time we arrived at the momentous climactic scene, two hours on backless stools and wooden chairs was taking its toll on the audience’s concentration levels.
The stamina of the performers, however, was unfaltering, and their strong characterisation ploughed through with a confident momentum. With wonderful moments of intensity and horror (Emily Jane Kerr’s soul-crumbling reaction as Emilia realising her part in the fate of Desdemona is still fresh in my mind) Grassroots pay worthy testament to the world’s favourite playwright and his most tragic of tragedies.