Othello – July 2015

Experience: 5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Iqbal Khan

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 24th July 2015

This was a strange experience. Both Steve and I rated one performance considerably higher than the production as a whole, and that doesn’t happen often. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, we’re looking forward to our second viewing as we’ve often found in the past that once we’ve adjusted to the way a production is being done, we can get a lot more out of a return visit, not to mention the possibility of improvements happening over time.

The performance we rated so highly was that of Lucian Msamati as Iago. There were some wobbles along the way, and occasions when the production itself hindered our enjoyment, but on the whole we found his portrayal strong and powerful, unlike that of Hugh Quarshie’s Othello. Steve reminded me of Hugh’s brilliant performance as Tybalt in a 1980s RSC production of Romeo and Juliet: I was seriously annoyed, as it made his rather bland performance in this all the harder to take. If he had shown us even half of that level of acting this would be an Othello to remember; as it is, we’ll be grateful that the Swan theatre has provided some excellent memories for this year.

The set design appeared reasonable at first sight. Geometric tiling created a Venetian piazza for the opening scenes, and a small boat was sitting towards the rear of the stage (the pre-show lighting was, as usual, rather gloomy). A swathe of stonework covered the side balconies and created a vast arch across the back of the thrust. The stone was showing some wear and tear, including a crack through the top line of masonry, and I could see bits of carving here and there, especially at the sides. Smaller arches led onto the balconies left and right, and the musicians were in the middle tier side balconies with seating above them. We sat next to the right hand walkway, a few rows back.

During the play the central arch opened up and folded back, either fully or part way, and there was room behind it for other large pieces of scenery to be lowered: these included the stone framework of a rose window with a hole in one of the filled-in sections and a large section of repetitive arches which were gold-coloured and looked the worse for wear. When fully open, for Cyprus, we could see a backdrop of sea and sky, though as we were sitting to the right of the right walkway tonight we could also see the edges of the backdrop and the general wings area beyond that. There were two stumps of stone pillars at the very back with oil drums beside them, and various crates covered with tarpaulin: these weren’t clearly visible until the action moved to Cyprus.

The lights went down, there was music and we could just see two men clambering into the boat. As the lights came back up a bit – the play opens at night, after all – we could see that a large area in the centre of the stage now had water in it. Impressive. Iago and Roderigo had been arguing, and Iago had the other man in a firm grip from behind, one arm across his chest, until Roderigo settled down a bit and Iago could safely let him go. There was a bit of movement from the water and a bit of splashing which distracted me, so I didn’t really get into the performances until shortly before Roderigo got out of the boat to rouse Brabantio’s household with the news of Desdemona’s marriage to Othello. I will just mention here that I couldn’t tell what period the costumes were to begin with, as Iago was wearing a voluminous cape, and while Roderigo was hunched in the boat all I could see was a bluejacket and grey trousers. (Turned out it was modern dress for the soldiers and a complete hodgepodge for the rest.)

Iago’s description of his own deceptive prowess was accompanied by a pantomime villain parody, whereby he brought his sleeve across his face and uttered an evil laugh – “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve…”. Roderigo’s attempt to shout out to Brabantio was extremely feeble, and was followed by mocking disgust from Iago and laughter from us – always good to get the humour going early. Iago fairly bellowed out Brabantio’s name, and before that gentleman reached the left balcony had pulled his hood over his head to stay anonymous. He added his other comments while still sitting in the boat, and gestured to Roderigo to get more involved, especially to interrupt Brabantio’s long-winded diatribe; Roderigo’s few interjections had been cut so he spoke not a word, and Iago had to do the job for him. Roderigo finally found his voice and made a reasonable case for the late-night disturbance, with Iago making some noises to support his story – “boom” seemed to be one of his favourite words, but he also repeated some of Roderigo’s – and while Brabantio went to check on his daughter, Roderigo helped to push the boat to the back of the stage so that Iago could slip away before Brabantio came on stage. The boat moved quite a way back, but I couldn’t see how far back it went as it was swallowed by the gloom.

Brabantio and two of his household security force erupted from the house, with one guard grabbing Roderigo and holding him on the left of the stage for the next lines. Brabantio finally signalled to the guard to release him, and when Roderigo said “I think I can discover him…”, he emphasised the “good” in “good guard”, with a glance at the nasty man who had held him prisoner.

They had hardly left before Iago, now clearly in a soldier’s uniform, joined Othello and a couple of servants on stage. One servant played the guitar while the other served wine. When they walked across the floor, I noticed that the water had disappeared and they seemed to be walking on solid ground. Later, it became clear that there were several square grids down the length of the watery area which could be raised and lowered. Raised, they became tables and platforms; lowered, they allowed access to the water. A neat bit of design, though it must have led to some wet bums later on.

This bit of dialogue was OK, with Othello being laid back and relatively low key; not a problem at this stage. Cassio’s arrival led to Othello’s brief departure, and following Iago’s line “He’s married”, for once Cassio laughed after saying “To who?” – as if he wouldn’t know, given that he’d been their go-between. Brabantio arrived, had a good rant and then ordered his men to arrest Othello. His guards and Othello’s soldiers had a real set-to, with the guards coming off worst. I noticed one reference to the Duke as “she” – had I heard correctly?

It turned out I had; with the next scene following on quickly, we soon learned that Nadia Albina, Nerissa in the current Merchant of Venice, was playing the Duke. She wore a glittering black evening gown with cropped jacket, and brandished files around as much as anyone, despite being limited to one hand. The story became a bit garbled here – I was slightly distracted by the water dripping off the central table, a part of the grid which had been raised up for the purpose – and having one of the reports on the Turkish fleet delivered by a messenger via computer screen didn’t actually help: if this was a modern setting, why not send some planes out to check for accurate information? One of the Duke’s aides wore a headset and relayed other reports to the assembled senators, and the whole scene, while demonstrating that the Venetians were in a late-night flap about something, just didn’t work for me. I felt that the actors were speaking to each other and not to us, which is something I’ve rarely experienced in the theatre before.

Moving on to Othello’s story of his wooing of Desdemona: his mention of “men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders” was said to one of the Duke’s advisors who was standing on the right walkway, near our seats, and I could see Othello wink at the man as if to say “we know it’s a load of rubbish, but these young girls…”. This suggested to me that Othello was no stranger to tall tales, which rather undermined any sense of his integrity from an early stage.

We were still OK with the production at this time, but then Desdemona arrived and we were both struck by how badly they’d miscast the role. This Amazon ice-queen was anything but the naïve, sheltered, somewhat romantic young woman which the text suggests. We know Desdemona has intelligence and a strong will, or she wouldn’t have been able to carry out her own elopement so successfully that her father hadn’t a clue, but this tall lady was far too self-assured in such company. Forget “my simpleness”, this woman would give as good as she got from anyone, including her husband: the later scenes were in trouble already.

Her costume didn’t help either. So far, there hadn’t been too many silly choices, but the bizarre designs for Desdemona were unaccountably poor. All of her dresses were in beige or off-white, the styles were overly elaborate and for this scene she had presumably not had time to take out the hair clips which adorned the entire front of her elegantly coiffed chignon; she looked like she was in the process of being assimilated by the Borg (trekkies will understand). Having said all that, I have no wish to criticise the actress herself: she did the best she could with what she was given, and generally delivered the lines well. She hugged her father when she first arrived, and he hugged her back. After she confirmed the marriage, Brabantio had another rant and grabbed her; Othello came forward to help but Desdemona held out a hand to stop him intervening. What I took from this was that she felt no fear around her angry father, and indeed he let her go without actually threatening physical violence towards her. Othello repeated her line “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind” as he held her at the end of the scene, and I think he kissed her before they left the stage.

Iago pointed into the audience when he declared that he would change his “humanity with a baboon” – we laughed – and he and Roderigo sat on the table for the start of their conversation, with Iago standing up during it and towering over the younger man. As Roderigo left, he handed Iago a wad of money, which Iago counted as he began his soliloquy. The table slowly descended as Iago laid his plans, so that he could stride off as the play moved to Cyprus.

The arches swung back, and this time I don’t remember much in the way of a storm – must have been out at sea. I suspect a lot of lines were cut. Each side balcony held a soldier who was scanning the sea using a large telescope on a stand. Cassio arrived first, followed quickly by Desdemona, Iago and Emilia. Cassio was frankly a bit too friendly with Iago’s wife: he kissed her, then stood with his arm around her while another soldier took a photograph of them with an old-style camera. Iago made his usual criticisms of women, up to “you rise to play and go to bed to work”, but the rest of the banter between him and Desdemona was cut, which was a shame as it gives an actress more material to flesh out her character. Even so, she came across as much more poised than we usually see, and we were definitely becoming concerned about this portrayal.

Desdemona and Cassio were sitting very close together on one of the packing cases – these had been brought on to stage at some point, possibly for the start of the scene – and Iago’s comments seemed more appropriate this time as the two young people engaged in what looked like a rather intimate, though not sexual, conversation. When Othello arrived, he paused to kiss the ground before going to Desdemona and lifting her up, then he put her down and kissed her for quite some time; the others on stage looked away at that point. Othello’s greetings to the Cypriots were fine, if still a bit low-key, and when he left, the soldiers fell to partying. Crates of booze were brought on – champagne, no less – and the men were assisted in this task by two women, one of whom we assumed would be Bianca. As Cassio soon fell into conversation with her, this seemed to be a reasonable assumption.

The revellers went into slow motion for one section, during which Iago took centre stage and delivered his soliloquy which according to my text should have been in the previous scene. As they came out of that bit, they went into a dance and were joined by Othello and Desdemona, with the dancers forming a circle. Desdemona stayed in the middle of the circle and danced with a number of the men; she was moving quite seductively, which was another change to the usual version of her character. The dance broke up, Othello told Cassio to set the guard, and he and Desdemona retired for the night.

That’s when the party really livened up. Vertical strip lights were set up by the archway, which was half-opened at this point, and someone brought on a loudspeaker with a microphone. I spotted flames flickering in the oil drums at the back – don’t know when that started up – and some musicians joined the actors on the stage. They began with a drum rhythm, and Iago started up a slow and sad African song, breaking off after a few verses, in tears. Cassio applauded, but he was the only one, and his response came across as quite crass. He took the microphone and went into a version of Wannabe (Spice Girls) followed by some mouth rhythms; the others joined in, and Iago took the mike back to do some semi-rapping while Cassio took the opportunity to snog Bianca. This led into a full-on battle-rap between Cassio and Montano: Montano scored a good hit with his first verse, but Cassio’s response was well liked by everyone – something about Cyprus being too hot, have to wear a lot of sunscreen and that Montano used to be white (the rap was much more entertaining).

The second round was a win for Montano as Cassio seemed unable to think of anything; Montano took the mike back for another verse which this time seemed to be insulting Othello rather than Cassio. There was a bit of jostling but Cassio managed to laugh it all off. Iago tried to stir things up again, but Cassio interrupted him with a return to the dialogue around the “there be souls must be saved” line. Cassio correctly identified his left and right hands, and his speech and demeanour were indeed well within the bounds of sober respectability, which led us both to feel that this scene, although entertaining, had rather missed the point.

Following Cassio’s departure, Iago did his usual trick of poisoning Montano’s mind against Cassio before the man himself dragged Roderigo back onto stage and ended up fighting Montano. To be fair, I would have had a hard time telling Othello what had happened, as the whole scene descended into a general melee, worthy of the bar fights in old-style Westerns. Bianca even smashed a bottle over Montano’s head to help Cassio. The alarms were sounding, and with all that brawling going on, it wasn’t clear when Othello arrived on stage – he didn’t seem to have enough authority to have stopped it by his presence. He was angry, true, but didn’t have to work as hard to check his fury as most other Othello’s we’ve seen. From our perspective, this was the beginning of the end for Othello, in terms of the richness of performance: most of his ensuing involvement was rather tame and undistinguished.

Despite Montano’s injury – bleeding in the stomach area – Othello waved him to one side while waiting for someone to explain what had happened. Iago’s line, “I had rather ha’ this tongue cut from my mouth than it should do offence to Michael Cassio” got the laugh it deserved, and Cassio was certainly surprised by Iago’s words, judging by the way he looked at him. After Cassio was sacked and Othello left, some of the soldiers stayed behind to help clear up, while Cassio himself sat on a crate and cried out in despair. The others left quickly, so Iago finished off the sweeping while he talked with Cassio – another distraction – and gave him the dustpan and brush to finish off the job.

At least Cassio was a bit more cheerful when he left – Iago gave him the broom to take away as well – but a soldier’s work is never done, and Iago spent the next few minutes wiping the floor and one or two other places with a bloody cloth – why? After quite a long time he looked up and said “What?” to us; it was very funny. Another “What?” provoked another laugh, and then he went into the full soliloquy. This was good stuff. When Roderigo arrived, Iago held his arms open to give the poor young man a hug. As he worked to persuade the young man to stay in Cyprus, the sound of the call to prayer at the local mosque floated out from the rear of the stage, leading to Iago’s comment “’tis morning”.

Forget the musicians and clown at the start of Act 3 scene 1; we’ve rarely seen that done, and they must be on the Endangered Shakespeare list. To lead into the attempts by Cassio to speak to Desdemona (and Iago’s machinations thereupon), we were ‘treated’ – I use the word very loosely – to an inserted piece of action which appeared to both of us much more trendy than effective. A hooded prisoner was dragged, screaming and yelling, onto the stage at the back by two soldiers, who then mistreated him for a bit. One of the grids had dropped down so they could do the now traditional (and some might even say clichéd) head dunking, after which he was tied to a chair behind the water hole, hood still in place, for more torture. Othello had produced a mini blow torch, Iago rummaged around for what looked like pliers, and they proceeded to inflict pain on the poor chap. What they wanted from him is anyone’s guess: information? Punishment? He had his back to us when he was in the chair, but even so this seemed to both of us to be a completely gratuitous piece of violence with no justification whatsoever.

The prisoner was then moved to the back of the stage, underneath the arch, presumably to avoid spilling blood on what was now a domestic area. There are a couple of short scenes in my text which they cut, going straight from the torture into Cassio’s meeting with Desdemona and her promise to help him, which was played out near the front of the stage with the prisoner still clearly visible. This was a very strange juxtaposition of events, and I have no idea what we were meant to take from it – it certainly didn’t add to my understanding of either the play or the production.

The prisoner disappeared at some point during the scene, and Cassio’s farewell kiss of Desdemona triggered Iago’s “I like not that” when he and Othello came on. Then things got even worse – yes, really – as Desdemona and Emilia helped Othello and Iago tidy the stage. Thus we had the bizarre sight of Desdemona cheerfully clearing away a drill and Emilia packing away the blowtorch while smiling at her husband. The stapler which one of the soldiers had wielded had been left on the stage and Desdemona nearly tripped over it, but Emilia picked it up and stashed it out of harm’s way on top of a crate: all of this was tremendously distracting as well as puzzling. We considered this staging choice from a number of angles, but neither of us could come up with any idea of why it was done, what it was meant to tell us about the two couples’ relationships, nor think of any way in which it benefitted the production.

I think the dialogue waited till they had done these chores, and then the warrior Desdemona had to wheedle her rather dull husband into issuing a dinner invitation to Cassio. More believable with this casting and staging would be Desdemona texting Othello to remind him that Cassio was coming for dinner that evening – don’t be late! And that was another area where the production was very wobbly – in what time period was all this happening? The soldiers were bang up-to-date, as we shall see in a moment, but much of the production wasn’t; I got the impression that this simply hadn’t been thought through enough. The recent National production was superb in this respect, including many little touches which picked up on the modern setting; with this version of the play the modern aspects seemed like add-ons rather than an integral part of the interpretation.

The next scene, in which Iago first introduces the idea that Othello has been cuckolded, was an ideal example. It’s vital to the plot and requires a great deal of subtlety and power from both actors, but here I spent most of my time being distracted by some inconsequential staging, so that I’m practically unable to report on the performances themselves. Here’s how it went: Iago took a metal case over to one of the crates and began unpacking it. First he took out a small tripod, and set it up in the middle of the front part of the stage. Then he got an aerial and fixed it on top of the tripod, presumably at the correct angle to receive/send a signal. Then he brought out a long cable and took his time connecting the aerial and a laptop which Othello had put on another crate. Once this was done, Othello spent a few minutes trying to get a signal. He tapped the keyboard – no luck. Eventually Iago went over to him, looked over his shoulder for a few moments, and tapped something – case solved! At least, I think Iago got it working, as Othello shut the laptop down almost immediately and Iago began to pack the equipment away again.

And as for the dialogue? They’d gone from around “Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady…” to nearly the end of the scene, but I can’t tell you much about how they delivered the lines or what sense I got of the interplay between these two characters. I was much more aware of Iago than Othello, but the nuances within the scene were lost. Othello threw Iago off the chair towards the end of their dialogue, then curtly bid him “farewell”, at which point Iago left the stage, but as he hadn’t finished packing up, he soon returned so that he could put the tripod away in the case while giving one last turn of the screw to Othello’s jealousy. As he carried the case off past us, I could see a smile creep over his face at the damage he had done.

Left to himself, Othello went over the ideas which Iago had planted in his too fertile mind. After “I am declined into the vale of years – yet that’s not much” Othello showed us how sprightly he still was by dancing a bit. Desdemona appeared briefly on the left balcony as if in a vision; she didn’t interact with Othello nor he with her, but she did appear at ground level a minute or so later for her next entrance. I’m not sure what her balcony visit was about, but perhaps she was just checking where Othello was.

When she came over to him, he tried to fob her off with the excuse that he wasn’t well; she became quite caring for a few minutes and used her hanky, a black one for once, to mop his brow. Othello took it and dropped it carelessly before holding Desdemona tightly, and after they left, Emilia was quick to nip over and pick it up. She tucked it into her dress before looking up and telling us why she had snaffled it. Iago reacted strongly when she produced the item, but although she gave him a long kiss he remained cold towards her. She was clearly upset by this, presumably not knowing what she’d done to cause such rejection from her husband.

After she left, Iago became very fidgety, moving around the stage, slamming the lid of a crate and indulging in more floor wiping activity – I have no idea what that was about other than to show his agitation. Perhaps he needed some time to think about what he was going to do with the hanky. In any case, he finally got round to telling us his plans, but before he could put them into motion, Othello came back on, wracked with jealous imaginings. After a few lines, Othello punched Iago, got the chair which had held the prisoner earlier and strapped him into it before getting out some pliers (I think) and shaping up to torture the ‘truth’ out of him. This was around “Give me the ocular proof”, and while the torture set up made a kind of sense in terms of the text, it seemed way out of place in terms of their relationship. Now we could see why the earlier sequence had been inserted – to prepare us for this bit of staging – but given that Iago is only too ready (and now, with the hanky in his possession, able) to provide ‘evidence’, these aggressive tactics appeared over-the-top. Perhaps with a stronger Othello, we might have had some sense of the danger Iago faces, but the anger was more roar than bite, and didn’t convince us.

Further torture included placing a plastic bag over Iago’s head, a silly thing to do when you want information, as the torturee can’t speak even if he wanted to and you risk losing him altogether. It certainly made the point that Othello has gone way beyond reason in his rage, but again we weren’t impressed. Othello then picked up a hammer and looked as if he might hit Iago with it, but carried on talking. Finally Iago came out with the story of Cassio talking in his sleep, which produced some laughter when he described how Cassio “lay his leg o’er my thigh”; this seemed rather out of place in the circumstances, and suggested that we weren’t the only ones who weren’t fully engaged with the serious emotions of this scene.

At some point Othello took a knife and released Iago from the chair. With so much business going on, I’m sad to report that the power of the dialogue had largely gone unnoticed. Othello put his arm round Iago’s neck after freeing him – in a friendly way this time – and after kneeling to make his vow, Othello was about to rise when Iago put his hand on his shoulder and stopped him. Iago then knelt beside him to make his own vow, and Othello was so moved that when they stood up again he hugged the man. There was some ripping up of paper before Othello made Iago his lieutenant, another hug and then some drumming started up. Iago took out the hanky as he left, leaving Othello standing centre stage – he may have replaced the chair – and the lights went out. Interval.

The crew did a little bit of tidying up during the break, but it was basically the same set when the second half restarted. The gratings had risen to create two different levels, a higher one at the front about table height and a lower level at the back. Emilia brought on a coffee tray and placed it on one of the crates centre front, moving a chair beside it with another two crates for extra seating.

Desdemona came on in another long beige-coloured dress and with a bright white hanky tied round her wrist. When Othello arrived, she sat by the coffee tray and poured him a cup. He joined her but thrust the cup back onto the tray at some point. (I’ve just realised from doing these notes where some of the problems with this production are. I’m frequently unable to say at what point in the dialogue certain actions happened, suggesting that the actions are not arising from the text or the characters’ interactions, but are more like a choreography being danced to a different tune, connecting in places with the play but in a haphazard way, so that the actions fail to emphasise or contrast with whatever’s going on in the scene. That’s why I feel I’m writing a list of stage directions instead of reporting on an interpretation of the play.)

Othello tried to scare Desdemona with the story of how potent the hanky was, and she did her best to look a bit upset at the news, but she was much too sensible a young woman to take these things seriously for long. Othello stormed off and Cassio arrived a few moments later, carrying a few yellow flowers which he had probably picked on his way to the meeting – what a sweet lad. Emilia was seated and pouring coffee for Cassio as he launched into his dialogue with Desdemona. Emilia looked up at him to ‘ask’ how much sugar he wanted – it’s amazing what raised eyebrows can communicate – and he broke off briefly to say “two”. It raised a laugh, but again it was putting the business before the play, so I was more aware of her actions – putting the sugar in the cup, handing it to Cassio and giving Desdemona her cup before taking the flowers – than I was of the lines being spoken.

Iago had stayed a little back from this group, and went past them and off the stage to check on Othello at the appropriate moment. Desdemona was cross with Emilia for suggesting that Othello was jealous – “I never gave him cause” was rather snappy. The ladies left Cassio alone on stage and Bianca, the young woman whom Cassio had been talking to earlier, took this opportunity to sneak up and grab him from behind; he spilled a little coffee as a result. She sat down and poured herself a cup – she likes a lot of sugar – but Cassio took it from her before she had a chance to taste it so that he could give her the hanky. She was understandably upset at the thought of him having another lover, but he used his charms to soothe her, and she left the stage a happier woman with his promise to visit her.

Cassio also left, and then Othello came and stood on the front platform, the higher one of the two. He was speaking, but whether to himself or to Iago I wasn’t sure. The text must have been edited at this point, as the scene actually opens with their conversation; this time I think it was just Othello at the start. Iago came on at the back and then joined Othello to wind him up even more over Desdemona’s alleged infidelity. In a short time Othello began to shake and twitch, before falling on to the platform and lying there, moaning a bit. There was some whiny music in the background to illustrate just how bad he was feeling, in case we couldn’t tell.

Iago stood over Othello to speak his lines, then came down to the lower platform to talk with Cassio when he arrived. I noticed that the rear platform had much thinner legs than the front one, and it wobbled quite a bit as the actors moved around on it – another distraction. By this time I was feeling pretty disenchanted with the whole production, and found even Iago’s dialogue a bit boring, but we (and they) soldiered on. Iago sent Cassio off and persuaded the recovered Othello to hide so that he could listen in on their conversation. He duly went under the front platform, and Cassio and Iago stood on the rear one, so we could see Othello writhing in agony as he overheard what he supposed was Cassio confessing to his relationship with Desdemona. He has lines in the text, but I’m not sure how many of them made it to the performance.

There was a strange moment during this scene when Bianca came on to the stage from the back, ran to the coffee tray, grabbed a cup and made off with it. Bizarre. She then reappeared in the background and hovered there for a while till her cue came to enter the dialogue again. She was obviously in some kind of passion, because she broke the coffee cup to show us she was angry! She held the black hanky and threw it on the rear platform as she told Cassio she wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Iago picked it up and gave it back to Cassio before he left to follow her.

Othello emerged from his hiding place with a knife in his hand, but he still wasn’t giving me any sense of depth or detail in his character’s suffering. The troops came on to clear the stage, red banners were hung from the balconies and the platforms lowered down for Lodovico’s arrival. The lighting improved suddenly as well, and everything seemed more cheerful for a few moments. My view was partly blocked by Montano, so I didn’t actually see Othello punch Desdemona in the stomach, but I did catch the consequences: she fell to the ground clutching her abdomen and gasping for breath, and there were some shocked looks amongst the others present, but no one went to her assistance. As she was on the floor for a couple of minutes, this lack of activity seemed very unlikely, and the long pause leading up to her “I have not deserved this” compounded the problem, as everyone else had to wait before they could express their shock – most improbable. I can understand that the others, particularly the soldiers, may have been wary of Othello’s anger, but surely Emilia would have rushed to Desdemona to help her? Surely Lodovico would have spoken up, seeing her struck for no good reason? His line “make her amends, she weeps” was scarcely true tonight, as Desdemona showed the sort of courage that would have made her head girl at Mallory Towers several years running, and all in all this staging left me cold.

The red banners were removed when Othello left the stage, and after a short conversation between Iago and Lodovico – oh, when will this end? – Othello came back on to interrogate Emilia. I have no idea where this was happening, as the stage was bare, the platforms were flush with the stage, and the lighting gave me no sense of location at all, a sort of flat gloom. It could have been a room indoors, a section of the sewers or a hill overlooking the town for all I could tell. Emilia did her best to support Desdemona – apart from letting on how the hanky was lost, of course – but Othello was too far gone. Emilia brought Desdemona to her husband, and was sent off again. I found it hard to follow Othello’s lines during this next part; I could make out the words but not the sense of them, and while Desdemona did an OK job of trying to persuade her husband that she was still faithful, she didn’t have much to play against. She managed to persuade me that she was a bit upset, but again I felt that she was too strong a character to stay that way for long.

Her lines had also started to blur, so I was relieved when Othello left and Iago came on. Desdemona actually cried a little this time; she was leaning against Iago’s chest which clearly made him uncomfortable. He cleaned his hands after the ladies left and before Roderigo came on. (I was longing for the end by this time, according to my notes.) Roderigo’s “go to, very well” got a laugh, but the scene took a darker turn as Iago worked to involve him in a murder plot. He kept wiping his hands during this scene, suggesting that Desdemona’s tears had affected him deeply and that he was beginning to unravel as well, though there was no other evidence for this in the lines or his actions.

The bed was a simple affair: a thin mattress with a sheet over it and a couple of cushions for pillows. It was carried on and laid near the front of the stage where a coverlet with red panels was laid on top. The front grille was lowered while this went on, revealing a small pool, and there were a few candles and some hanging lanterns for light. This was much more effective, though the bed itself looked extremely uncomfortable.

Desdemona took off her shoes and paddled for a bit before sitting on the side of the pool with her feet in the water. She even flicked some water at Emilia during the first part of their conversation, and again they took their time over the business of getting Desdemona ready for bed. She was down to her undies before we got the tale of her mother’s maid, Barbary. The song was not the same as the text, and Emilia joined in, producing a rather unpleasant sound. She was already on her way out of the room when Desdemona’s impassioned cry of “these men” brought her back for their discussion of faithfulness and husbands, during which I felt Emilia went a bit too quickly through her lines. She also dropped the bag she was carrying and had to repack it before leaving: I assume that was a mistake, but with this production, who knows?

To create the location for the next scene, the lights at the front were dimmed and strip lights added at the back, so with Desdemona snugly under the covers, we could focus on the action behind her. Iago put on white gloves and switched off the lights when he heard Cassio approaching. Roderigo stabbed Cassio twice, but with no effect. Then Cassio revealed his bullet-proof vest before punching Roderigo hard. Roderigo fell down and Iago used the distraction to creep up behind Cassio and cut his leg. Lots of noise, shouting, etc. and then two men appeared on the balcony – wasn’t sure who, but I suspect Lodovico may have been one of them. They left, presumably to come down and find out what was going on, leaving Iago with just enough time to kill Roderigo before they arrived. He switched the lights back on, discovered Cassio’s injury and Roderigo’s death, and by the time Bianca arrived there was quite a crowd on stage. When Emilia turned up she went for Bianca, and they had to be pulled apart.

With all that excitement over, we returned to the bedroom, now a vast chamber with white curtains hanging at the back and the door well off stage. Othello came on carrying a sword, which he hid under the mattress at the foot of the bed. He lay face down beside Desdemona to kiss her, then rolled over on to his back, returning for a second kiss. She woke up, and as she tried to persuade him not to kill her, he went round the sides of the stage, stepping on each of the candles to put them out, quite a creepy thing to do. For some reason, Desdemona was trying to get into her negligee and finding it very awkward – that would be a good bit of business to drop. Let’s face it, this is meant to be an extremely intimate moment between a faithful wife and her husband who wants to kill her: our focus should be entirely on them and theirs on the act about to happen, she to prevent it and he to carry it out. Frankly, I couldn’t have cared less about these two.

Emilia called from off stage as Othello finished strangling Desdemona. After she came in, Desdemona revived and may have spoken some of her lines during this section, but unfortunately there was a loud and prolonged burst of coughing at this point which effectively wiped out most of what was said. Emilia took a knife off Othello just before calling out for help; I think she gave it to Iago when he came on. I found myself disagreeing with her when she referred to Desdemona as “the sweetest innocent”, and I spotted that Iago was talking with her during Gratiano’s speech over Desdemona’s death bed, informing us of her father’s death. Iago then held a knife to Emilia’s back as she threatened to tell them all about the hanky, but a soldier pointed his gun at him so he held off. He did slit her throat a little while later, mind you: not that it stopped her talking, as she managed a few more lines before she died!

When the others left to chase Iago, Othello took out the spare sword which he’d hidden earlier. He was ready to use it on himself, but took the opportunity to attack Iago when he was brought back in. He cut the man but didn’t kill him, and the sword was taken away. The soldier forced him to kneel, and he remained there, near the top end of the bed, for the rest of the scene. His claim that he was “one not easily jealous” I treated with disdain – this was definitely not the case tonight – and as he tidied the cover over Desdemona’s body, he took out another knife and stabbed himself. The only person happy about all this was Iago, who laughed at the sight of the deaths he had brought about. The lights went down to the sound of drumbeats – at last we were free!

Mind you, they got a lot of applause, and we did join in for quite a while. After the first round of bows, the two leads came back on; Lucian stood at the back and waited for Hugh to join him, saluting him as he went past – a nice touch. Then they hugged each other before acknowledging the audience and calling the rest of the cast on for the final bow.

I usually find it interesting to do these notes for a Shakespearean production I didn’t enjoy, as it gives me a better idea of what the play is about. This time I felt the problems lay too obviously in the casting department and in the excessive amount of business incorporated into the performance, both in terms of the violence and the detail. We both felt that there was a decent production in there, but that serious pruning would be needed to get it out.

Lucian Msamati was excellent as Iago (8/10), giving us a clear picture of a man hell bent on revenge. His performance was occasionally blunted by the staging, but it was very watchable throughout. We enjoyed several other performances, including Ayesha Dharker as Emilia, James Corrigan as Roderigo and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Cassio, and we also had no complaints about most of the minor parts, with the usual game of spot-the-Merchant-character going on in the background. I’ve already commented on Othello and Desdemona, so I won’t repeat our opinions here. Steve rated the production as a whole slightly higher than I did at 6/10, but otherwise we were in total agreement.

I wasn’t aware of many changes in the text, but I’m not familiar enough with it to be sure how much had been cut. At just under three hours, it’s still a long play, but a significant amount of that is pure business, so perhaps more had been dropped than I realised. In any case, we’ll give it another viewing and see how it’s come on (or not) in the intervening weeks.

Finally, I wanted to mention the innovative aspect of the casting, that of having a black Iago. We both felt that this took the sting out of the racist elements within the play, Brabantio excepted, and allowed Iago’s jealousy to be seen more clearly as based on his lack of promotion and/or the belief that Othello had slept with Emilia. It’s an interesting choice, and had the production been more satisfying in other ways we might have found more riches in it. As it is, we were simply glad to have seen such an excellent Iago.

© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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