Othello will never satisfy all critics and audiences because the choices and interpretations made are and always have been so close to existential debates on race, gender, and all forms of political and personal identity that we cannot fail to bring our own prejudices and views to bear on the production itself. We should accept that as the natural condition of this play and give credit to any version that is true to the text and makes a good fist of throwing a net over as many of its aspects as possible, even if we think it has not captured the ones that matter most to us. On that scale this production deserves high praise and full audiences on its current tour.
Othello is a play that requires directorial interventions to succeed, but too often it receives interpretations that fail to trust and make full use of what is there on the page, or bend the play into service to contemporary pieties thus producing an unfortunate graft. Richard Twyman’s well-considered production for the Bristol Tobacco Factory is mostly respectful of Shakespeare’s original and where it departs from it does so in plausible, original and mainly successful ways.
Their first step is to re-think the layout of Wilton’s, and much to the advantage of the audience. Designer Georgia Lowe has placed the action on a square raised stage in the midst of the usual location of the stalls and raised a lighting gantry above it. Extra lights are attached to the barley sugar columns, and a microphone and other props descend as needed from above.
The audience is placed on all four sides and the actors enter and exit from all the corners with the lighting and sound consoles up on the usual stage. This makes for a much more intimate and intense performance, and immediately raises the level of discomfort that this play should engender through its perfervid imagery and violent action. The diffusing tunnel effect of the usual Wilton’s layout is no help here, and the actors visibly relaxed into their performances knowing that they did not need to over-project across a cavernous acoustic.
The major departure from tradition in this production lies in neither setting (abstract), nor costume (modern dress), nor in delivery of the text (mostly well honed and respectful). Rather it is to be found in making Othello himself a true believing Muslim. This is shown clearly in an opening wedding ceremony conducted in Arabic between Othello and Desdemona, where the super-significant napkin plays an important role.
The idea that Othello’s identity is not settled but is concealed, layered and marginalized seeps slowly into every aspect of the play. As the useful programme notes suggest, the root of Othello’s susceptibility to Iago’s poisonous ‘fake news’ lies in the ‘cognitive discord’ at the root of his self-hood, which Iago intuits and exploits. Clearly we are meant to take away many contemporary echoes and parallels here, but they are not pressed upon us insistently, and are left for us to mull over in tranquillity for ourselves.
None of the three central performances is wholly convincing, but all have great merits and some fine moments. Mark Lockyer’s Iago moves from tight and thrilling focus in some scenes to garbled generalization in others in a way that is hard to rationalize. His playing of the early scene in which he wins over the gullible Roderigo could hardly be better done. He reels him in delicately and slowly allowing us to savour to the full the unique vein of seamy yet brilliantly precise imagery with which Shakespeare invests the character.
This episode is fundamental in giving us a proleptic sense of Iago’s seductive skills, so that when he builds the case against Desdemona we are already suborned and ready to find his tactics credible. Yet when he came to the key climactic exchanges with Abraham Popoola’s Othello he was too often rushed and generalized rather than insinuating and varied in pace, more bluster than patience.
Popoola has many of the attributes of a fine Moor: great physical and vocal presence, an ability to float and paint the heroic verse that the author lends him, and a fierce loyalty and joshing devotion that makes you believe in his love for his wife, for his fellow officers and – most poignantly – his trust in Iago as his ‘honest counselor.
You feel with him his disappointment at Cassio’s apparent disregard for his duties, you pick up the lingering prickle of attraction between himself and Emilia, and the inner conflict he feels between his external actions and his personal faith. What you do not get here is a sense of Othello as a mature soldier, general and leader of men: it is simply unreasonable to expect this from a young recently graduated actor.
Norah Lopez Holden makes a refreshingly feisty Desdemona, determined right from the start to follow her own star. She is at her best in her graciousness and spontaneous qualities, especially towards Cassio and Emilia. She grows up through the play in a measureable way and her death scene is all the more painful because she is so plangent and plausible in an episode that can be played in too melodramatic a fashion.
It is also rare to see the interlude before the denouement played so affectionately between Emilia and Desdemona with rare camaraderie and relaxed ease.
Just as Judi Dench made us re-think the role of Paulina in The Winter’s Tale so Kay Stephens ensures that Emilia lies right at the heart of the meaning of this interpretation of Othello. The simmering jealousies and rivalries between herself and Iago are made palpable whenever they are on stage together.
The prickly coil of resentments and betrayal between the two of them is crucial in earthing the source of Iago’s hatred of the Moor, and with her skill in acting as well off the speech as on she acts as a sort of conscience for the audience throughout. Her awkwardness with Othello is also beautifully rendered.
It is important that she and Cassio appear as fundamentally good people throughout the play, and when she will not be silenced at the end the final scene is given a thrilling lift at a point when you think you have already reached the highest pitch of drama. The whole audience was with her all the way.
The smaller parts are played consistently well though the use of regional accents for some (Roderigo, as a Geordie) seemed without obvious justification. Piers Hampton did a good job as Cassio in presenting that ungrateful role as a fine figure of a man whom in other circumstances Desdemona might have fallen for; and Alan Coveney did as much with Brabantio’s bluster as he could. John Sandeman not only put together some very convincing fight sequences in a tight space but also found more in the part of Lodovico than many do.
This play will never satisfy all critics and audiences because the choices and interpretations made are and always have been so close to existential debates on race, gender, and all forms of political and personal identity that we cannot fail to bring our own prejudices and views to bear on the production itself. We should accept that as the natural condition of this play and give credit to any version that is true to the text and makes a good fist of throwing a net over as many of its aspects as possible, even if we think it has not captured the ones that matter most to us. On that scale this production deserves high praise and full audiences on its current tour.