Like most people reading this review, my first experience of Shakespeare’s Othello was in school. Considered one of his best tragedies, it combines an honest, and foolish titular character; the ultimate Machiavellian villain; and, a wife more sinned against than sinning. Thus, I would wager, that a great deal of the audience will come to see Clatterhouse Theatre’s Othello with a fair amount of baggage in tow, compared to that of a new writer’s work.
Therefore, it may be for this reason that this production takes the Othello that we know, and place him in an entirely new realm, that of a casino floor; out with the parchment, in with the iPad. However, this idea is far from original, for directors have been adapting Shakespeare’s works into a host of new locations, all with varying results, for many decades. For example, setting Hamlet in a World War One bunker, or King Lear in an office block; for the Bard’s words transcend his own parameters, allowing for directors, such as Eliot Langsdon, to bring their own personal thoughts to his characters to flourish and thrive, for not even William Shakespeare could predict the popularity of the iPhone.
With all that said, it is with elevated spirits to say that, I believe, this production’s transition of Othello worked rather well. Many of the scenes that take place on the casino floor look slick and stylish, something the production aimed for I would think; and a scene, in particular, set within a night club is a treat for the eyes and ears, as I shall come to. While not all parts of the play survive the transition as well as others, with many scenes being unsure of where to be placed sentenced to the ‘backstage’ part of a casino, on the whole it is a good adjustment that works well.
One should now discuss the plot; yet, unwilling to explode a four-hundred year old spoiler, I shall be as vague as I can. Othello is the manager of a casino and in a relationship with the casino’s head singer/dancer Desdemona, much to the dismay of her father Barbantio. Yet, all is not well, for Iago, a croupier at the casino, despises Othello, and wishes for him to be destroyed and removed from power. Thus, with a small amount of help from Roderigo, he plans to bring about their demise.
This production’s greatest strength is within its acting, for it is strong throughout. Hainsley Lloyd Bennett is a powerful Othello. Yet, Lloyd Bennett is most effective during moments of quiet where he makes the role his own. To explain, during scenes where Othello is solitary, musing over events, Lloyd Bennett plays Othello with an air of confused and considered calm; allowing his words to flow slowly, and his eyes to purvey the scene. This is played perfectly, for one can easily believe that this moment of contemplation fits to Othello’s qualities of leadership. However, there is a slight tendency, in moments of rage, for Othello’s anger to involve nothing but, at times, incredibly loud shouting, and it feels that, perhaps, a more considered approach is achievable, for anger can’t be portrayed solely by volume.
Felicity McCormack plays Desdemona, and is able to juggle sex appeal and vulnerability well. When we first see her, she is shrouded by a black veil and singing in a sparkling red dress, and all eyes are easily drawn to her. This opening image of Desdemona stands as a symbol: the red represents love and lust, the questioning of which will be the hero’s downfall; but, also that this production of Othello is different, fresh and for the twenty-first century audience – a large credit of this image goes to its designer, Eliot Langsdon. As the play goes on McCormack’s smile appears more and more chipped as the man she loves begins to drift away and her world falls apart, this is an effective tool that she utilizes, and this draws the audience in to her side and allows them to feel sympathy for her. And in the final scene, despite the occasional moment of the scene feeling over-acted, McCormack portrays such heart-felt love and sadness, that one almost wishes the inevitable end were to be changed.
To go on, one of the greatest treats within the play is Ben Kavanagh’s Iago. Iago, of all Shakespearean characters, is unquestionably the most fun to watch and Kavanagh exemplifies this thought. Kavanagh is cruel and flamboyant; timid and stern; he moves with an air of stillness, allowing the audience to, almost, see the wicked cogs turning his head. Equally, Kavanagh continually adopts an ethereal gaze while others talk to him. This creates the effect of boredom and disinterest, and is an ingenious quality for Iago, for it is as though he is an adult among children and they bore him until he can manipulate them. Also, something which plays into Kavanagh’s favour well, is the venue itself. The intimate space allows for Iago, during his soliloquys, to lock eyes with members of the audience and this conjures the thought of being complicit in his crimes, which makes you feel both exhilarated and disappointed in one’s self.
Lastly, two performances I wish to draw attention to, are Kate Cooper’s Emilia, and Max Upton’s Roderigo. Cooper’s Emilia, for the most part of the play, has a reserved, and almost comic roll. Often raising eyebrows and widening eyes to the words of other characters. Yet, it is in the final act in which she, in my humble opinion, steals the scene. Her moments of upset and anger never feels too extreme; but, rather, perfectly played, and the one to watch. On the topic of stealing scenes, enter Roderigo. Despite the fact that the conversations between Iago and Roderigo are rather one-sided to Iago, the sparks that fly between Upton and Kavanagh during these scenes makes you unsure of who to watch, and I believe that Upton, continually, steals the scene. His twitching, nervous and sycophantic Roderigo is a delight to behold, and is a fantastic take on a, usually, forgotten character.
Finally, some notes on the production itself. The first sight the audience see is that of someone being beaten up in the dim light of a street lamp, not something one would think out of place in a Scorsese film. This is one of the first parts that Eliot Langsdon (Design and Direction) has created in order to put his own stamp on the history of Othello, and it looks cool and aimed at a young audience. And, had the play never mentioned it again, I would have thought it just that. But, in the final moment something is revealed that turns the moment into something more clever and, if I may say, an ‘Ahhh’ moment. This is cleverly done, and brings a nice circularity to the piece.
There is a moment in the production where all members of the cast stand as though about to spontaneously burst into an 80s dance track. It is a bizarre moment to withhold, yet what follows is one of the best scenes within the play. The lights, drinking, smoking and dancing give a burst of life to the play. And this is the best example for the play’s attempt to break from the mould. Set within a nightclub, seeing Iago and Othello dance to modern clubbing songs is difficult not to enjoy, and one is left with a smile that remains on the face. Othello to pop music just works.
In short, Clatterhouse Theatre’s Othello is a slick, cool production for the twenty-first century audience. With only the occasional jarring moment, the play works well, with its ace in the hole being its talented cast.
Review by Oliver Clark
Othello: The glitzy and seedy underworld of London’s Casinos is brought to life in this new and exciting interpretation of a Shakespeare Classic.
Cast: Hainsley Lloyd Bennett, Kate Cooper, John Irvine, Robert Frimston, Ben Kavanagh, Fergus Leathem, Blasse Lenn, Felicity McCormack, Johan Munir, Charlotte Reid, Max Upton
Creative: Directed & Designed: Elliott Langsdon, Set Construction: Dennis Langsdon, Lighting & Sound: Misha Anker, Producer: Claudia Blunt
OTHELLO by William Shakespeare
Clatterhouse Theatre, in association with Drayton Arms Theatre
Drayton Arms Theatre,
153 Old Brompton Road, London, SW5 0LJ
Tuesday 2nd to Saturday 27th September 2014
Tuesday to Saturday 8.00pm, Saturday matinees 3.00pm
Running Time: 2 Hours
Ticket Prices: £11 Concession, £13 Full Price
Bookings: 020 7835 2301
Friday 5th September 2014