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Othello by William Shakespeare – Lyttelton Theatre

As you enter the auditorium of the Lyttleton, projected on a series of steep steps and onto the back of the stage are programmes, posters and other advertising material for previous productions of Othello overlayed with ever-changing dates starting in the 1600s and progressing to the current day.

A man dressed in black is mopping the stage using the kind of cleaning trolley you might see on a hospital ward – why he’s doing this is never explained or referenced again. Then the projections stop and Othello arrives wielding a large stick and proceeds to make martial arts moves and the latest National Theatre production, one of Shakespeare’s best-known dramas begins in earnest.

Rosy McEwen as Desdemona, with Giles Terera as Othello at the National. Photograph: Myah Jeffers.
Rosy McEwen as Desdemona, with Giles Terera as Othello at the National. Photograph: Myah Jeffers.

This production, directed by Clint Dyer seems to be set in the twenty-first century but at a nonspecific time. All the characters are dressed in austere, modern-day clothes in either black or dark grey with a military slant and have a feel of the uniforms of Mussolini’s army but it’s impossible to date them accurately and that’s probably the intention. There’s also a feel of Orwell’s 1984 about the production with video projected at the back to the stage but this comes and goes – there’s also some stock exchange ticker-like projection but that only appears for a short time. To give the staging another layer there’s also an electronica soundtrack with music and sound effects that match the harsh lighting – everything has a harsh, edgy quality that adds to the atmosphere.

Even as recently as 1964, Laurence Olivier was playing Othello in blackface but thankfully that practice has stopped and here the title role is played by Giles Terera. In recent productions, there has been colour-blind casting with other characters being played by actors of colour but in this production everyone apart from Terera is white pointing up the fact that although the play is ostensibly about jealousy, it’s also very much about racism and this is highlighted by the casting.

Othello is also about misogyny and manipulation and this comes across very strongly. Both Othello and Iago manipulate their wives into doing what they want and in one scene Othello treats Desdemona as if she was a dog calling her to him with whistles and finger clicks.

Othello has always been a difficult play to stage with its numerous themes and various plots and subplots to weave together and unfortunately this production doesn’t quite gel together. Bringing it into the twenty-first century should work but although the costumes and the setting are contemporary, they still use knives, cudgels and carry flaming torches which is anachronistic and a little confusing. Also, the use of the ensemble – in the programme listed as ‘System’ (whatever that means) – to stay on the stage seated on the steps is a bit distracting at times.

As for the four main characters, Terera as Othello is a powerful presence at the centre of the action but then at times, the character comes across as a whiny, manipulating misogynist. Rosy McEwan’s Desdemona is too much of an English rose to give off the allure that the character needs although in truth she doesn’t have a lot to do. Paul Hilton’s moustachioed Iago is just a little odd. The character should be malevolence personified especially as Shakespeare doesn’t give an explanation for his actions in trying to destroy Othello but Hilton plays him like a comic Monty Python character – “he’s not evil – he’s just a naughty boy”! The standout of the four however is Tanya Franks as Emilia who like Desdemona is treated badly by her husband but gives a feisty, nuanced performance as an abused woman who has no choice but to do her husband’s bidding.

The themes of Othello resonate more now than they did when it was first performed. Dyer has put racism right at the centre of this sometimes messy and confusing production which is probably where it should be even though that probably wasn’t Shakespeare’s intention when he wrote it.

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Fitter

Othello
Farewell the tranquil mind.

A bright, headstrong daughter of a senator; elevated by her status but stifled by its expectations.

A refugee of slavery; having risen to the top of a white world, he finds that love across racial lines has a cost.

Wed in secret, Desdemona and Othello crave a new life together.

But as unseen forces conspire against them, they find their future is not theirs to decide.

Cast
Roderigo / System – Jack Bardoe
Messenger / System / US Roderigo/Gentleman – Joe Bolland
Bianca / System – Kirsty J Curtis
System / US Brabantio/Gratiano – Peter Eastland
US Othello – Patrick Elue
Cassio / System – Rory Fleck Byrne
Emilia / System – Tanya Franks
Gentlemen / Officer / System / US Lodovico/Duke of Venice – Colm Gormley
Iago – Paul Hilton
Montano / System / US Iago – Gareth Kennerley
Lodovico / System – Joshua Lacey
Duke of Venice – Martin Marquez
System / US Bianca – Katie Matsell
Desdemona – Rosy McEwen
System / US Desdemona – Amy Newton
System / US Emilia – Sabi Perez
Gentleman / Senator / System / US Montano – Steffan Rizzi
Brabantio / Gratiano / System – Jay Simpson
Othello – Giles Terera
Voice / System / US Cassio – Ryan Whittle

Production team
Director – Clint Dyer
Set Designer – Chloe Lamford
Costume Designer – Michael Vale
Lighting Designer – Jai Morjaria
Sound Design & Composition – Pete Malkin
Sound Design & Composition – Benjamin Grant
Co-Composer – Sola Akingbola
Movement Director – Lucie Pankhurst
Co-Video Designer – Nina Dunn
Co-Video Designer – Gino Ricardo Green
Fight Director – Kev McCurdy
Casting – Alastair Coomer CDG
Casting – Naomi Downham
Dramatherapist – Samantha Adams
Associate Director – Mumba Dodwell
Associate Set Designer – Shankho Chaudhuri
Dramaturg – Zoë Svendsen
Shakespeare Consultant – Paul Prescott

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

The production will be filmed and released in cinemas in UK/Ireland from February 23rd 2023.

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