Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
I was a little anxious about this one – I’m not great with the heavy tragedies, and I worried about whether the changes in the Globe had been carried through to damage the tiny Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I was right to be. The (happily unadulterated) Jacobean experience makes the tragedy far more immediate. This wasn’t, quite rightly, an easy play to watch.
The overall impression you got was of the danger – real, physical danger – of being a woman in a man’s world. The man’s world was easily and simply rendered by the presence of eye-catching codpieces (the costuming nodded at the Jacobean with ruffs, and hose, and bodices, but made no bold statement about time or place), by wild nights of drinking (complete with candle powered disco ball). Making Cassio a woman (ably played by Joanna Horton) was a stroke of genius – making sense at once of Iago’s jealousy, of Cassio’s guarded ways, of the speed of her downfall. Women are not allowed to slip up when they are trying to be men.
It was a minor shame that the changes to the book to accommodate a gender shift jarred a little – Iago’s comments become more pointed when the honesty of men is paired with affirmation that Cassio, as a woman, is apart from that breed. Elsewhere, the bawdy language was updated more successfully to give us a wonderful dangling rhyme for hunt, although other modern interjections, like Desdemona telling Othello to “Get off me!” rather took us out of the action than drew us in.
The violence on the stage felt very real and all-pervasive – Othello in his rage broke the stage (not the props – the actual beautiful smoky mirrored panels which make up the frons scenae at the back of the stage), while any number of characters tore bed clothes and stripped off to leave a stage littered by the end with a detritus of feathers and blood and armour.
And that’s leaving aside the violence to persons – a boisterous load of soldiers quite naturally makes for a physical performance, slapping and brawling, but Desdemona was also much given to beating her own breast. The violence to women was of course a main theme, compounded by Cassio’s in-plot brawling, and the additional vulnerability Bianca’s disability leant her (she was played by Nadia Albina, who is missing and one forearm, and I wouldn’t mention it if hadn’t made the violence feel worse somehow – which may say more about me than about the casting). Strangely, the worst horror wasn’t the expected Desdemona’s death, but the grim, audible snap of Emilia’s neck as she was murdered by Iago. The intimacy of the theatre meant you could feel the whole audience recoil.
At least, Emilia gets to call out Othello and to speak what we were all feeling, when she says that “But I do think it is their husbands’ faults If wives do fall”. Thalissa Teixeira played a thoughtful Emilia who was cowed but not broken by her abusive husband. I never got a proper sense of who Natalie Klamar’s Desdemona was when she wasn’t having to react to a violent and irrational husband – perhaps it’s a failure in the writing that the need for her to be blameless in her death doesn’t leave much character to hang her actions on – although, if you think about it, there’s a story to tell in the women who defies her family and gives up her position to marry a rank outsider, and then finds herself starved of company except his troops, his officer’s wife, isolated and without support when he turns on her.
Kurt Egyiawan, who I saw as Angelo in Measure for Measure in 2015, was an Othello who seemed to be lying to himself – claiming to be rational but leaping, instantly, into deep passionate rages. It was easy to believe that neither Desdemona nor his troops had seen this side to him – it felt almost like a new side to his character. Sam Spruell’s Iago was all surface bluster and bonhomie. Though the staging, cleverly, gave him puppet-master status as he watched scenes with the audience, I would have like a bit more obvious machination, more working behind the eyes. It felt that only his asides to the audience showed that he wasn’t as he otherwise appeared. Peter Hobday did excellent double duty as a peevish, entitled Roderigo and an uninterested Duke* while Jon Foster was Brabantio and Montano, a pair of almost indistinguishable blokes. I can’t say more about them because the whole force of the play seemed so skewed to the women that they were left very little to work with.
Iago’s presence, the repeated singing of a haunting rendition of Lana del Rey’s Video Games** a staging where scenes bled into each other and characters didn’t leave the stage, all helped to give the production the sense of a nightmare that not one of the characters could escape. This was a blunt instrument of a production. I felt as bludgeoned as the women who had all been beaten up and left, dead or alive, on stage at the end.
* Who took a camera-phone picture of the final carnage, in the only non-candlelit moment of the production and one I still don’t see the significance of.
** Much more successful use of modern tunes than the all-too-obvious use of I Kissed A Girl when you’ve got a lesbian sub-plot.