Othello

Wed 29th February – Sat 3rd March 2012

reviews

JY Hoh

at 02:29 on 1st Mar 2012

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I took 'Othello' as a set text in my Literature A level, and as many other English students may be able to identify with, had the regrettable experience of having a work of art ruined by repeated memorisation and over-analysis. Having resigned my tattered, messily-highlighted copy of the playscript to the shelf, I thought I was well shot of it. Thank goodness for the Owlets, who have created an incredibly slick and stylish production that contained enough outstanding performances (including a superlative star turn by Alexander Stutt as Iago) and theatrical magic to get me engrossed in Shakespeare's tale of tragic jealousy in a way that my sixth form teacher never could.

Director Francesca Petrizzo deserves significant plaudits for her clearly defined creative vision. The choice of a Cold War setting was not arbitrarily chosen; it actually suits the play's thematic elements. The spartan stage and drab military uniforms makes it seem as if the dramatic action is taking place in an underground bunker stocked with a series of narrow corridors or grey conference rooms, helping to generate both tension and claustrophobia. Another interesting directorial innovation that works well is the usage of the Secretary (Elizabeth Howard), who records the confession of Iago (Alexander Stutt) and serves as a foil for his many monologues and rants. Howard's presence not only gives Stutt something to play off against, but also serves as helpful narrative framing for the audience. Other instances of careful directing are present throughout. I remember a particularly nice touch which involved the contrasting of the loving main couple with Iago's damaged marriage through two drastically different stage exits. The physical movement in the play – be it kisses or violence, sometimes both simultaneously – is visceral and intense. All in all, Petrizzo brings much to the table with a clean directorial style and careful attention to detail.

Petrizzo chooses to open the production with a monologue by Iago, and her adaptation of the script retains most of the villain's lines. This is a wise choice, because the star of the show is undoubtedly Alexander Stutt. Iago's performance alone is worth tenfold the price of admission. Jangling his limbs into awkward angles like a marionette whose strings are manipulated by the devil himself, Stutt completely owns the stage the moment he steps on it, wielding his trenchant and sly voice with such natural menace that I found myself thinking that I should be wary of the man should I ever meet him in real life. I imagine that where normal actors see a chunk of lines to memorise and deliver, Stutt instead sees infinite possibilities to express his character's unique quirks and motivations. In addition to this preternatural ability to mine exceptional depths from the words given to him, Stutt also displays the laudable talent of being able to make his fellow actors look good - where he needs to slightly tone down his intensity to suit a more dominant scene partner, he is able to do so without compromising the quality of his own acting. I was constantly reminded of (a younger version of) Christoph Waltz. ‘Othello’ is worth seeing to witness Stutt’s complete immersion into Iago, a performance that I consider to be alarmingly near perfection.

The success of this production does not stand, however, on the shoulders of one man. Generous amounts of praise should be handed out to the central couple, Othello (Moritz Borrmann) and Desdemona (Sophie Ablett), with some minor qualifications. Borrmann is well cast as the proud general, with a confident booming voice and impressive physical presence that does justice to his character’s noble stature. The emotion that Borrmann communicates is consistently genuine, particularly the broad brushstrokes of pride, rage, and anguish required by his monolith of a character. My main criticism of Borrmann’s performance is that his verbal performance is slightly less competent than his emotive one. He sometimes speaks too quickly and misses valuable opportunities to properly punctuate his character’s potent lines and rhyming couplets (the ‘it is the cause’ and ‘wash me down in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire’ speeches suffer particularly.) In addition, whenever Borrmann turns his voice hoarse to communicate Othello’s angst, the clarity of his speech takes a sharp dip, especially problematic because of the unfamiliar sentence structure and phrasing of 17th century speech. The twin problems of slightly muffled enunciation and discomfort with Shakespearean verbal cadences mar his otherwise extremely moving acquittal of a very difficult role. Ablett brings an understated energy to the character of the virtuous Desdemona, convincingly playing the chaste maiden who is confused to find herself in an increasingly hellish series of situations. Watching Ablett act is a study in dramatic economy; she does not waste a single movement or breath, controlling her body and voice with surgical precision to hit the exact emotional notes that her character requires. Look out for an exquisitely timed exchange between her and Iago where he mocks her on the nature of women and she responds with teasing reprimands – because of Stutt’s boundless capacity for varying modes of contempt and Ablett’s controlled elegance, this scene flows like swiftly running water. She does slightly falter in specific instances, however; during the speech in which Desdemona laments the tale of her mother’s maid, and during the final bedroom scene in which she pleads with her murderous husband, Ablett somewhat sacrifices diction for breathy emoting, making her lines difficult to hear. Much of this is probably attributable to first night jitters; I am confident that both Borrmann and Ablett will improve on this aspect of their performance over subsequent nights. It is also worth noting that the pair displays boatloads of chemistry; the scenes involving physical closeness and intimacy were very convincing, with Ablett’s slim frame fitting into the grand wingspan of Borrmann’s strong build like a missing jigsaw piece. This natural compatibility, combined with two very fine performances, constitutes much of the play’s emotional heft as the story speeds towards its inevitably tragic conclusion.

The supporting cast continues this production’s trend of extremely competent acting. Brabantio (Edward Lundy) displays some carefully restrained rage as Desdemona’s impotent father, and both Montano (Tom Beardsworth) and the Duke of Venice (Michael Young) provide convincing sketches of men of business and action caught up in a whirlwind of horrific events. Cassio (Joe Rolleston) turns in an unerringly solid showing as a soldier whose intelligence and capability is beyond doubt, but has a slightly bestial side to him – see an arrestingly staged segment in which a drunken Cassio assaults and batters Montano (Beardsworth’s whimpering and thrashing is also particularly realistic.) I found the performances of Emilia (Amelia Sparling) and Bianca (Alice Evans) to be of especial merit; both of them possess that rare talent for making Shakespeare’s language accessible, with Sparling utterly compelling as the bitter yet spirited wife of Iago, and Evans equally good as the jealous lover of Cassio. Howard as the Secretary may be largely silent for the duration of her presence on stage, but her well-timed reactions to the events transpiring serve to add an additional layer to each scene that takes place. The standard of the supporting cast is integral to the success a play like ‘Othello’, and in this instance, they far from disappoint.

Most of the scenes in this production play out like clockwork, and the story moves along at a smooth clip. However, I noticed some fairly odd details. Firstly, when Othello retires to a corner seat in the front row to spy on the behaviour of Desdemona and Cassio, he does not actually end up watching them, instead electing to cast his eyes downward while stewing in anger. Secondly, after Othello has slain Desdemona, Emilia seems to enter the room too early; he pronounces his wife’s death and is still covering her body with the sheet after Emilia walks in, which makes it seem bizarre when she does not notice the murder until several lines later. Finally, some of the cast members were somewhat shifty-eyed during the final freeze when Iago delivers his last lines, which slightly spoiled the effect of the tableau. Nevertheless, these all are minor problems that can be easily rectified, and only slightly detract from this amazingly performed and expertly directed Shakespearean adaptation. A few years ago, I was studying for my English Literature A Level - as I did so, I remember wishing desperately for the agony would end and thinking that nothing could endear 'Othello' to me. I stand corrected.

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Karl Dando

at 04:58 on 1st Mar 2012

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The play may be called 'Othello', but the essence and object is undoubtedly Iago. Thankfully, this is a production that absolutely grasps that fact, and, couched in a superb performance by Alexander Stutt, the play is a great success, that in its edits edifies, in its ommissions improves, and in its very conception sings the metaphysical matter of Shakespeare's drama.

A great aspect of the show's success in this is its design: the adaptation is cast in the visual vocabulary of an early twentieth century wartime setting, costume meshing perfectly with a minimal but modestly evocative stage design, which, together with the textual change of jettisoning the Rodrigo character, emphasises a confined, soap opera-esque air of domesticity. The lighting too must be applauded for an artful subtlety which – spoiler alert – pays off beautifully with the shock of red at Desdemona's murder.

This violating of the private cohesion of the production (a cohesion not of realism, but rather the far more believable artifice) at considered points reminds us of a key concern of this adaptation: to engage an audience deeply with the abstracted joy of that 'cohesive' performance, to encourage them to empathise with objects beyond individuals. This production demonstrates 'Othello', like 'The Tempest', as a work of intense metatheatricality, or rather the more general metaliterality: fundamentals on the nature of storytelling are evoked by Stutt's Iago, who we begin with alone on stage, a primodrial essence outside of the story but living only in it. It is within the first scene that the quality of this show leaps apparent: Shakespeare's language is prefaced by a unimposingly restrained frame that informs us that, channelled via A Secretary who sits at a desk at the side of the stage throughout, we are to learn of the case surrounding a recently executed man: Iago. As the lights fade to a spotlight, where Stutt crawls from the womblike indentation in the Auditorium's stone wall, and in the course of his first utterance stiffens from weary nihilist, back through/into time, to the subtle machiavel who initiates the story, we feel the very throb of Iago as essentially...essential: as not so much a character as a symbol of something dark and primordial, some instinct for destruction. The metaphysical inscription of the drama's concerns are suitably hightened by a few happy accidents of biology: it seems particularly perfect that Moritz Borrmann as Othello should tower over the other actors, Stutt snapping at his heels, and the fact that this Moor is white heightens an impression here of superficial Otherness – Othello's black skin, or, here, his nationality – being held in relief in the play against the more fundamental Otherness of Iago's potently purposeless evil. And that this sort of writing can unfurl so easily from my impression is surely the highest recommendation: this is a production that truly invigorates its material, that truly brings the art to life, and the life to art.

The cast were uniformly good, with several in particular shining brilliance: Stutt's David Tennant-esque Iago, if you haven't guessed by now, is a delight, as is Edward Lundy's Barbantio: a kind of wonky Timothy Spall. Much praise is due Sophie Ablett as Desdemona, who twirls and flirts with a desperate sadness, and particularly eviscerates with her death song in the final Act. The chemistry of Ablett and Amelia Sparling, who plays Emilia, is touching, and Alice Evans flairs a great sense of physicality as Bianca. Even Elizabeth Howard, who plays the almost completely still and silent Secretary, owns her few lines and physical interactions (look out for an excellently unpleasant fondling by Iago) exactly, and brightly serves the machinery of this expertly crafted production.

But the thesaurus only supplies so many ways to say 'See this show.' It is of course not without flaws, and in terms of actual improvements the use of guns in the climactic scene does seem to sit a little awkwardly, in terms of the placement and movement of the actors, but these quibbles fade to insignificance against such generally masterful handling of the play. Tragedy is a framed moment of art against the inevitable chaos of life, but a review can only mourn that moment. If you are reading this review to help to decide whether or not to go: do.

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