13 February 2015
Twas the night before Valentine’s, and I was off to see a play about sex, jealousy, obsession and death. Probably a good thing I didn’t have a boyfriend to take with me (even if the couple I did go with didn’t seem to have a problem). And it was pissing down with rain, which is more of an issue than you might have been thinking since the Rose isn’t heated (thank god they give out blankets)*.
The best phrase to describe the productions was pared back –which covered everything really, from the script (they got the running time down to about 90 minutes, no interval – probably a good thing given the ambient temperature), to the cast – all five of them – to the set – a table/desk, a chair, and a few props…
The staging was modern-day – meant to have a corporate feel, which feels strangely appropriately for a theatre rescued – barely – from the encroaching demands of office buildings. And the high-pressured world of business (especially banking) could seem like a natural fit – Othello driven mad by the late nights, there actually being something of worth for Iago to want (and his jealousy coming from the insanely competitive industry he was in), but it wasn’t really emphasised enough to be a convincing backdrop. The only time it worked was when Iago snarled about Cassio being “a great arithmetician” – which took me mentally down a wonderful by-way of quants and CDOs.
The cast were all good, and pretty evenly matched – which is essential when you only have five of them! Cassio was excellent, Emilia started off annoyingly bouncy but absolutely came into her own when she tore Othello a new one (and my god I love Shakespeare’s women when they’re giving someone the rough side of their tongue. The parallels between this and A Winter’s Tale were pretty damn clear, even if Desdemona wasn’t going to come back to life as a magical statue).
What I know of the plot of Othello comes from two mismatched but equally unusual sources – the film Stage Beauty** and the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Othello rap***. In a version as short as this one, that’s really all you need, and what threw me instead were the number of lines I recognised unexpectedly – especially Othello’s speech about the base Indian who “threw a pearl away, richer than all his tribe”. Clearly Othello is one of those plays that works by cultural osmosis – I couldn’t even tell you where I knew all the lines from.
I don’t know if the fault was in me or in the production, but I couldn’t quite manage to lose myself in it, even the moments of high drama. I particularly remember mentally standing back when Othello was accusing Desdemona of losing her handkerchief and thinking to myself “well, this should be the definition of dramatic irony, but in fact it’s all just a bit shouty”. The cast were definitely better in the quiet moments: Cassio swearing off wine, Othello’s repentance, Iago’s skill at planting the seeds of doubt.
I wanted to love this, but I couldn’t quite – although I’d definitely go back for seconds of something else. Altogether, I felt it could have done with another half-hour to breathe and let the story unfold – I think, paradoxically, I would have been less aware of my wet toes if I’d been there longer…
* And yes, it is worse in the Globe which is neither heated nor roofed. But they don’t put plays on in February, and this is why.
** An interesting number starring Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, and a vast number of terrible wigs.
*** A worryingly catchy ditty which I have dim memories of performing in secondary school. I can still remember the whole thing, and if you click on the link it’ll get stuck in your brain too…