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Review of Othello: Remixed at the Omnibus Theatre

Desdemona and Othello - pic credit Richard Jinman.
Desdemona and Othello – pic credit Richard Jinman.

As all of the action (by ‘action’ I really mean mostly ‘talking heads’) is in and around a boxing ring in Othello: Remixed, the set rather screams, “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” from beginning to end. It could be argued that having what appears to be a bunch of working-class characters spending an inordinate amount of time around an area specifically designated for fighting would suggest that some ignoramus somewhere believes that the working classes are somewhat uncivilised – that they trade punches because that is the only way they know how to resolve matters.

Othello (Kwame Reed) would, in a more ‘faithful’ (for want of a better word) production, stand out for his skin colour. The dynamics are changed here – there are no white characters in this show, relocated to London and set in contemporary society. Iago (Baba Oyejide) was a regular source of amusement from the unassuming yet knowledgeable press night audience, deviant and manipulative as ever, but in this ‘dynamic interpretation’ (the programme’s choice of words), he is almost the likeable antagonist.

‘Almost’ is the operative word, however. The bloody ending doesn’t quite follow the usual Shakespearean course of events, but with knife crime in the capital and in other places continuing to injure and kill people undeservedly, it brings the story close to home. There’s some use of the blank verse from the Shakespeare text but there are also references to ‘Nando’s’ and ‘the cinema’. The transitions between the early seventeenth century and the early twenty-first-century vocabularies (and back again, and so on) are seamless and evidently have been given some thought.

With no set changes, the production is a relatively slick one, powering through the play’s five acts in just two hours (there is an interval). A lot of the play’s themes are somewhat universal in any event – such as personal jealousy, betrayal and how love can be so powerful as to cause destruction. Applied as they are here, in a London setting, presented to a London audience in a London theatre, tensions build, scene upon scene, until they explode, both on stage and off, through dialogue that brought to mind the more confrontational kind of television soap operas, where people are always and forever yelling and screaming at one another – and, if it were not for broadcasting regulations, would probably be swearing with every breath as well.

I have occasionally wondered how feasible traditional stories would be if they were retold in the modern world, with the ubiquity of mobile telephony and other forms of digital technology. I must resist giving too much away, except to say that this show does very well to incorporate calls and text messaging into the narrative. Two characters are introduced that are ‘new’. Firstly, the Referee (Danielle Adegoke), who is more of a conscience or an inner voice, given that she doesn’t stop anything untoward from going on or call time on a ‘round’. Secondly, Frank (Nana Antwi-Nyanin), who runs the gym, of which the boxing ring is but one section.

Character development suffers, however, if one suspends disbelief at the theatre door and deliberately ‘forgets’ whatever one knows about the play’s characters from any number of previous productions. Why does this Othello continue to even bother with Iago if he (Iago) really is getting on his nerves? But, Hoda Bentaher’s Desdemona is utterly convincing both as the wife who can persuade her husband to consider her point of view, and the person subjected to increasingly aggressive conduct from Othello, whilst not comprehending why she is being treated so curtly and abruptly.

A highly relevant and engaging piece of theatre, this innovative take on a familiar story is worth a visit.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Shakespeare’s gripping tragedy is remixed by Intermission Theatre Company, breathing fresh life into the stories of Othello, Iago and Desdemona in this new production directed by Darren Raymond (Shakespeare’s Globe: Shakespeare In The Abbey, The Shakespeare Walks).

London 2019. Championship boxer Othello has chosen Michael Cassio to be his corner man. Rejected, Iago is riven with jealousy and deceit. Desdemona is in the center of their conflict which may (or may not) lead to a calamitous end.

In an explosive mashup of language, Othello’s story is staged in a modern day London boxing ring, urgently reinventing Shakespeare’s warnings of manipulation, division and revenge.

OTHELLO: REMIXED
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on…

25 June – 14 July 2019
https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/

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