The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
2nd March 2017
There is an extraordinary amount to recommend the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, sister theatre of The Globe. For many theatre-goers, part of the charm of the latter is the authentic, contemporary experience, and doubtless there are thousands of committed groundlings who would balk at cushioned seats and a sturdy roof. Yet the Sam Wanamaker is not only more comfortable but extremely intimate, with the audience barely metres from a stage purely lit by gorgeous candlelight.
Ellen McDougall’s production is characterised by its intriguing modern inflections, and distinguished by a number of excellent performances. Although some of the stylistic choices left me unmoved, this is a solid and entertaining piece that does justice to the strength of the source material.
Othello is famed as a tale of jealousy and revenge. A charismatic war hero, Othello (Kurt Egyiawan) is nonetheless a divisive figure, maligned for the colour of his skin. His marriage to Desdemona (Natalie Klamar) is reviled by love-rival Roderigo (Peter Hobday), who confides his passions to Othello’s ensign, ‘honest’ Iago (Sam Spruell). Iago, who was passed over for promotion in favour of Michelle Cassio (Joanna Horton) despises Othello, yet has his implicit trust. Seeking revenge on both Othello and Cassio, he hatches a plan to make his master appear a cuckold, using his reputation for honesty to pin undue suspicion on his rival.
The three central performances are to be praised for offering different insights into some of Shakespeare’s most archetypal roles. Spruell is an uncommonly brutish and loveless Iago. His cunning is downplayed in favour of a joyless, nihilistic temperament, and he behaves with the certainly that he is only accountable to himself.
Egyiawan’s Othello is dignified and softly-spoken, yet like Iago, conveys an understated trauma. His tales of war which won Desdemona’s heart are laced with steel, and his treatment of Cassio after her drunken fight with Roderigo hints at the rage he feels when rendered powerless, or humiliated. In turn, the play’s central conflict is heightened by Klamar’s excellent Desdemona. Winsome but strong willed, her defence of Cassio after she loses her commission speaks of great integrity, yet is suitably ardent, convincingly playing on her husband’s insecurities.
Whilst gender lifts are common in a great many productions, casting Cassio as a woman is a particularly bold choice, due to her supposed relationship with Desdemona. Nevertheless, with the exception of the extremely well-directed fight between her and Roderigo, its potential felt underutilised. Joanna Horton gives a fine performance, particularly when fearing the loss of her reputation. Yet more could have been made of her role as foil to both Othello and Iago. As a woman, she would plausibly be subject to the same cruel vilification as Othello, and perhaps by Iago himself, but this notion remained unexplored.
The casting of Thalissa Teixeira as Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s confidant, proved to be a masterstroke. This is largely due to her quite sensational performance, which beautifully judges the wrought conflict between her loyalties to husband and best friend, and depicts her complicity in Iago’s scheme with great sensitivity. Nevertheless, casting as black actress as Iago’s wife is certainly noteworthy, as Iago’s contempt for his master is implied, in part, to be racially motivated. Yet I felt this added a fascinating dimension to Spruell’s performance, as depending on your interpretation, it either explains why he treats Emilia so poorly, or downplays Iago’s racism in favour of his unthinking cruelty.
I suspect others will be more attracted to the production’s modern elements, which perhaps hint at the timeless nature of jealousy and corrupting power. I mostly found them to be a little confusing and distracting. In particular, the motif of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’, sung by both Desdemona and Bianca (the terrific Nadia Albina), felt overused and a counterintuitive choice, given that the song focuses on a relationship between a passionate woman and her ambivalent partner.
I rather enjoyed the use of Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ during the party scene after Cyprus has been saved from the Turks, as although various characters egg on Desdemona – pointedly dressed in angels’ wings – to kiss Cassio, she does not, and Bianca kisses Cassio instead. Other touches felt more gratuitous, with Iago’s speech in modern dialect about the ideal woman, and Cassio and Bianca’s energetic and wordless final scene, proving to be highly memorable, but ultimately unedifying.
Ellen McDougall’s Othello is a very solid production, with excellent performances and a number of intriguing original motifs. Whilst these did not all work for me, mileage will vary between audience members, and the production’s many strengths and the excellent venue means it is to be recommended.