Pros: Seamlessly and confidently acted, with a neat and measured plot that builds to a nice crescendo.
Cons: Bits of the language didn’t seem quite right, and there were a few moments where the pace slowed.
If someone says to you “parallel story”, you’d no doubt immediately think of that juggernaut of musical majesty, Wicked. I bet you’re imagining it now: the super smiles, the jogging on the spot, the “Brooooadwaaaay” yodel. The metaphorical complex-human-emotion songs about flying on a broomstick, or wearing a pointy hat. The oompa loompas. Great big anthropomorphic red slippers. Beatboxing monkey-warriors. Toto played by someone from the actual band, Toto. Okay, I’ll admit I haven’t actually seen Wicked, but that’s not my point. If you’re looking for a compelling example of reimagining an old classic tale, then there is another way…
Desdemona: A play about a handkerchief centres on the character of, unsurprisingly, Desdemona, the wife of Shakespeare’s Othello. Set in the laundry room of Othello’s Cyprus villa, it mainly involves Desdemona and her servant Emilia discussing love, life and, most importantly, the whereabouts of the former’s patterned handkerchief. I could say that these topics of conversation are not to be sniffed at, but that would be too sneezy – sorry – easy. Okay, no more bad jokes…
Now, contrary to what you might think, I’m not cultured or well read enough to have seen every Shakespeare play. In fact, I’ve only seen a handful – Othello not being one of them. Although I am familiar with it, obvs… What I didn’t realise until afterwards was that Desdemona’s character in this play was markedly different from that in Shakespeare’s epic. Here, she’s shown as a very manipulative, spoilt and erratic young woman, treating Emilia disdainfully, and engaging in questionable activities. In Othello, she’s loyal and devoted, to the bitter end.
How does a theatre critic not know this about Desdemona? I hear you ask. Thankfully, this is an unpretentious publication that worries little about these misdemeanours (plus I’d like to think my musicals-bashing more than makes up for it…) But what this prior knowledge might have done is altered my perception of the play – seeing something from a different angle rather than a fresh one might have enhanced the experience. Or not. Who knows?
But in my naïve eyes, the play still stood up well. Performed in the round, the acting was extremely accomplished, full of both touching emotional outbursts and adept comic timing. The third character Bianca even engaged in some postmodern fourth-wall-breaking (it’s not completely unpretentious…) that took one fellow reviewer by surprise, so much so that she had to stop scribbling in her notebook and actually spend some time watching the play (yes, meow…) The set was well-stocked, with ladders and stools that allowed the actors to give a more three-dimensional performance. And there were particularly clever uses of things like shadow and physical movement that made the viewing experience more exciting.
One gripe would be the language. It would have been nice, after taking on a massive play like Othello, and twisting its essence in such a way, if the writer had tried to match the artistry of the dialogue a bit better. There were just a few times where modern words jarred (I can’t remember any examples unfortunately – maybe I should have written them down?!) Also, I think the paucity of characters left it susceptible to lulls in the action – it can be hard to keep an audience engaged with (for the most part) just two characters on stage.
But all in all, Desdemona: A play about a handkerchief is a very professional and stylish production that presents an intimate and intricate look at the relationship between young and old, dominance and submission, loyalty and betrayal. And not a sniff of brains, heart and courage in this parallel story. Thankfully.
Author: Paula Vogel.
Director: James Bounds.
Producer: Ursula Early at Big Bear Theatre.
Box Office: 0207 8706876
Booking Link: https://boxoffice.parktheatre.co.uk/ParkTheatre.dll/TSelectItems.waSelectItemsPrompt.TcsWebMenuItem_0.TcsWebTab_0.TcsProgramme_1419837
Booking Until: 8th June.