Pros: An outstanding Iago. Plenty of legroom.
Cons: An Othello who was more convincing as a lover than as a fighter. The modern setting showed up the flimsiness of the plot.
Clatterhouse Theatre have chosen to set their production of Othello in a casino/cabaret bar, with Othello as general manager, Iago as croupier and Desdemona as cabaret singer. It’s meant to be a glitzy establishment, but the limitations of The Drayton Arms’ stage – small, and a funny shape – mean that the place looks more like a sleazy shebeen than a hang-out for high-rollers.
For me, the casino setting did not work well for Othello himself. It trivialised him and his followers, and frankly the tragic downfall of a thuggish casino manager is just a bit less tragic than the downfall of a seasoned general. On the other hand, it was exactly the right sort of place for Iago; full of dark conspiratorial corners, and with a handy alley behind the stage door where he could talk to us, the audience, and to his hapless stooge, Roderigo. The idea of Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca as performers also worked very nicely. A number of scenes took place in their dressing room, and as we all know from Bugsy Malone, dressing rooms combine sisterly solidarity with a healthy rivalry. This goes some way to explaining Emilia’s catastrophic decision to give her husband Desdemona’s handkerchief.
Whilst the casino conceit wasn’t perfect, the setting was very atmospheric, ideal for a pub theatre and creatively realised, given the space and financial constraints. Costumes and props had evidently been cobbled together from here and there which, although understandable from a young company, was a shame. Othello should have been in the sharpest of tailored suits, but had to make do with slightly mismatched jacket and trousers; Iago’s perfectly sculpted quiff was at odds with his rather shabby trousers. Small things, but they subtly undermined some great performances.
It would not be a great Othello without a great Iago, and Ben Kavanagh gave us an absolutely superb Iago, of ambiguous sexuality. This Iago was petulant, bitchy, and almost comically self-aware. Kavanagh’s delivery made the verse modern and comprehensible, and he complemented it with an array of impeccably timed moues, shrugs, arched eyebrows and sideways glances. Quite mesmerising! It was easy to see why Desdemona would have fallen for Hainsley Lloyd-Bennett’s Othello. He was handsome, charming, affectionate and well-loved. But for my money he lacked edge. Despite an opening scene which showed him administering a savage beating, I had trouble believing in him as a fighter, as a leader of men, or indeed as a murderer. This was generally a strong cast, but I particularly liked Max Upton as Roderigo and Kate Cooper as Emilia. Upton’s Roderigo was played for comic effect as a man so craven and terrified that he looked like he might actually fold in on himself. But being comical, he was also rather loveable, in a wounded puppy sort of way, which made his death particularly poignant.
This was a really enjoyable production, full of energy and with a lively interpretation of the text. On the night I went the dénouement was interrupted by a loud drunk man outside the theatre who, on being asked to pipe down, instead fell down, got his foot stuck in the door, then scrambled up and begged to be let in. If he’d come in the first half he could have been part of the nightclub brawl that gets Cassio thrown out by Othello. As it was, his timing was off, but the cast didn’t miss a beat, and when the small stage filled up with bodies it was just as affecting as it ought to be.
Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Eliot Langsdon
Producer: Clatterhouse Theatre
Booking Until: 27th September. Tuesday to Saturday evenings, plus Saturday matinee
Booking Link: http://www.ticketsource.co.uk/search/searchVenue.asp?venue_id=61085