Home » London Theatre Reviews » The Phil Willmott Company’s Shakespeare’s Othello | Review

The Phil Willmott Company’s Shakespeare’s Othello | Review

Rikki Lawton (Iago), Matthew Wade (Othello), Carlotta De Gregori (Desdemona).
Rikki Lawton (Iago), Matthew Wade (Othello), Carlotta De Gregori (Desdemona).

Is every woman a ‘strumpet’ (that is, whore) in this production of Othello? Certainly not, but all are at some point accused of being one, sometimes several times in the same breath. Otherwise, this is a very faithful rendering, especially given the specific setting used in this production, India at the time of the ‘British Raj’ (1858-1947), and the removal of a few periphery characters. The structure of the play is still the same, and given its simplified nature in this production, it’s pretty easy to work out what’s going on, even for those encountering Othello for the first time.

There are not, therefore, very many (if any, to be honest) surprises here, although care has been taken with the text to ensure references to Venice and Cyprus have been taken out. The pre-show music consists of tunes that wouldn’t go amiss at ‘The Last Night of the Proms’, and to underline the whole British Raj thing, a verse of ‘Jerusalem’ opens the second half. The performance does seem longer than it really is, perhaps because it begins at a pace so brisk it cannot be sustained for five acts.

The sound effects – as they often do when used extensively – began to irritate, an almost constant underlying outdoor soundscape of the wildlife, rarely allowing the text to speak for itself, and (rightly or wrongly), it doesn’t leave the characters and the actors less exposed than they would otherwise have been. The set is probably the most majestic looking staging I’ve ever come across at the Union Theatre; it utilises the available space very well. At the performance I attended, there was an overabundance of theatrical smoke in the first half. The costumes (Penn O’Gara) were stylish and appropriate for the period.

This show is a quite a slog at times, which left me wondering if there might have been some rather more ruthless script cutting – the purists will have taken umbrage anyway given that, for instance, the Duke (Jeremy Todd) isn’t the Duke of Venice anymore. At times things are not made clear early enough – I could only sympathise when Desdemona (Carlotta De Gregori) is confused in Act IV is palpably perplexed by her husband Othello’s (Matthew Wade) change of heart towards her. It is acutely frustrating for the audience, who already know what has happened, and more to the point, what hasn’t. The Clown, being one of the characters dispensed with, might not have been all that superfluous after all – there are no moments of comic relief to help the audience relax and refocus.

The delivery of the lines is, for the most part, subtler than it would have been at the Royal Shakespeare Company – and why not? A good number of conversations take place behind closed doors, and while there’s some shouting, it’s by no means the default manner of speaking. Iago (Rikki Lawton) is so convincingly mischievous that members of the audience couldn’t help but snigger whenever another character referred to him as “Honest Iago”.

It’s not a completely watertight production – Bianca (Megan Grech) gets hold of a handgun, for example. There were, I presume, likely to have been various means of obtaining one in India in 1919, but why doesn’t anyone else have one? Even the title character must make do with a knife. There is some relatability between the narrative and the modern-day corridors of power: Lawton’s Iago would have made a good spin doctor. A slick and skilled production with a strong cast, this production could have been slightly speedier and therefore shorter.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Our production presumes that English army chaplain, Cassio and the Indian officer recruit, Othello, survived their Sandhurst training together, becoming friends, during which time they first met the wilful and beautiful débutante, Desdemona.

Upon graduation, Othello has been fast-tracked to the rank of General in an Indian outpost, now under the jurisdiction of Desdemona’s father, The Duke. She and Othello secretly marry and he sends for his old friend, Cassio, to be his Lieutenant.

Iago, Othello’s sociopathic English orderly (a lower-class soldier assigned to commissioned officers as a personal servant) is prevented from rising any higher in the army by his background and is deeply resentful of Othello for his favouring of Cassio.

With the reluctant participation of his newly arrived wife, Emilia, Iago plots the destruction of the General, who is already isolated and conflicted by his role collaborating in and enforcing the British occupancy of his native land.

OTHELLO Matthew Wade
DESDEMONA Carlotta De Gregori
IAGO Rikki Lawton
CASSIO Jerome Dowling
EMILIA Claire Lloyd
RODERIGO Maximilian Marston
BIANCA Megan Grech
THE DUKE Jeremy Todd
MONTANO Kit Carson

Produced by Sasha Regan for the Union Theatre
Directed by Phil Willmott
First Assistant Director: Holly Hughes
Second Assistant Director: Sam Gaffney
Set Designer: Justin Williams & Jonny Rust
Lighting Designer: Zoe Burnham
Sound Designer: Julian Starr
Costume Designer: Penn O’Gara
Historical and Cultural Adviser: Jag Grewal
Production Photographer: Scott Rylander
Stage Manager: Alice Woods

13th March – 6th April 2019
The Union Theatre, Old Union Arches, 229 Union Street, Southwark SE1 0LR.


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