A common conundrum facing contemporary theatre makers is how one reimagines Shakespeare, bringing his work up-to-date and engaging in the text successfully? Director Sinéad Rushe proves herself up to the task in this version of Othello.
At Riverside Studios, the audience are welcomed into Studio 3: a square, intimate space with seating arranged on three of the four walls, leaving one bearing a draped sheet of red material and with a guitar propped against the wall. This supplies an intimacy and involvement from the audience, forging a connection to the subject in a way that might be difficult to curate.
Shakespeare’s seminal tragedy focuses on a furious Iago, hurt from being overlooked for a promotion which was instead rewarded to Cassio. He plots to take revenge against his General, Othello. Iago manipulates him into believing his wife Desdemona is unfaithful with Cassio, stirring Othello’s jealousy. Othello allows said jealousy to consume him, murders Desdemona, and upon discovering the truth kills himself. As one of Shakespeare’s most performed tragedies the plot is widely known, so the excitement/apprehension is not regarding the plot, but how this adaptation will differ from the rest.
When the performers take to the stage, they huddle around Michael C. Fox, one of the three Iagos (and musical director of this play). A marvelous musical soundscape is created, with contemporary dance by Rose Riley as Desdemona wonderfully capturing her optimism and joy. This opening sets the tone clearly, before the audience are quickly swept into the narrative, which is very successfully edited down to a suitable one hour 40-minute run time. The scenes that remain are chosen with intent and a careful conciseness.
In and amongst the subtle differences provided by the edited text, the biggest marker of adaptation here is the choice to portray three Iagos. The importance of this character has been stressed endlessly by scholars, literary analysts, and GCSE students alike, and this production uses that importance as a guiding light. By having three bodies undertake this role, the amount of physical space taken up by the character reflects the magnitude of his importance in this story. Iago is, in many ways, a puppet master, and by expanding his physicality his presence matches this nature effortlessly. This decision, however, could easily have been a poor one, if not for the awe-inspiring portrayal supplied by Fox, Orlando James and Jeremy Neumark Jones. These three appear linked, effortlessly weaving in and out of dialogue, sharing movements, and with a subtle ebb and flow between emotional torment and determination.
Though the trio provide such well-executed performances, they are balanced very successfully by their fellow players. With a modest cast of seven, every performer breathes life and individualism into each character displayed. Martins Imhangbe brings a quiet, steadfastness to the role of Othello that builds effortlessly into rage and regret; seamless and considered. Rileyilluminates Desdemona with optimism and an unwavering sense of self. Rachael-Leah Hosker as Emilia/Roderigoand Ryan O’Doherty as Cassio/Brabantio bring nuance and consideration to each role and provide unwavering support for their castmates.
Ali Taie’s sound design is inspired, unique and carefully implemented; particularly in Fox’scontribution, with the perfectly compatible score and the use of microphones to access another realm of consciousness. Alex Lewer’s lighting takes the audience across locations and emotions, building tension wonderfully. However, these integral elements seemed to fade out towards the last section of the play – a slightly disappointing decision, as such creative additions provide individuality and depth to the story.
This production of Othello is one of the most inspired Shakespeare adaptations I have been lucky enough to witness and is very worthy of praise. A must-see!
Directed by: Sinéad Rushe
Produced by: Trish Wadley
Composed by: Michael C. Fox
Lighting Design by: Alex Lewer
Set and Costume Design by: Natalie Pryce
Othello plays at Riverside Studio until 29 October. Further information and bookings can be found here.