By William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Twyman
Company: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory and The Tobacco Factory
Venue: The Tobacco Factory
Date: Monday 27th February 2017
Another fantastic production from STF, with the emphasis clearly on the text and the characters. The two young actors playing Othello and Desdemona did good work, but for me it was the brilliance of Mark Lockyer’s Iago supported by Katy Stephen’s perfectly pitched Emilia that made this performance so powerful. There were one or two aspects which didn’t work quite so well, but this is a production I would recommend highly to anyone: it’s a shame the public haven’t responded by making it a sell out for the whole of its run.
The set was even more stripped down than usual. The pillars were square concrete with strip lights fastened vertically down the inward-facing sides. The central rectangle looked like concrete as well, while the outer edges of the space were covered with plywood boards, well stained. And that was it. When the lights went down for the start, some of the cast brought on metal folding chairs and placed them round the outside of the stage, with one being put just on the edge of the stage between the two entrance pillars – we were sitting in the middle of the front row on the right-hand side, so that chair was to our left – and another facing it between the far pillars. Mark Lockyer came on and stood by that second chair, and after a short pause, he nodded and the cast sat down.
Othello then came on from our right carrying a prayer mat, which he placed diagonally in the middle of the stage. He was wearing a silky orange top and a gold chain hung round his neck. Desdemona also came on, dressed casually in western style, with leggings and a top. She knelt opposite Othello on the mat and they went into an Islamic wedding ceremony, in which Othello used a handkerchief (the handkerchief) to cover their joined hands. They spoke some words in Arabic (I presume) and then embraced tightly – Desdemona was so short that tall Othello could easily pick her up and carry her off with her legs wrapped round him. Their passion for each other was clear, and the emphasis on Othello remaining a Muslim, whatever he was telling the Venetians, was interesting.
As they left the stage, the lights came up a bit more, and I realised that Roderigo was sitting in the chair opposite Iago, mainly because Roderigo spoke first. Their costumes were mostly modern, and I noticed that Iago indicated his jacket when he referred to himself as “the Moor’s ensign”; it didn’t look like a uniform, so it gave the performance a rougher edge, as if they were still half in the rehearsal room. Iago and Roderigo stayed in their chairs for most of the dialogue between them, but got up before it was time to warn Brabantio of Desdemona’s escape. Iago made a lot of noise, but was quick to hide behind a pillar when Brabantio showed up, emerging from the side entrance to our left and walking round to the far pillars to join the men on the stage. He was dismissive of Roderigo at first, but the message eventually got through, and Brabantio was incensed to find his daughter had indeed left the house.
At the Sagittary, Othello was changing out of his silk top and gold beads into his Christian clothes and crucifix, while Iago spoke with him. This Othello was younger than any we’ve seen before, but his height and bearing were sufficiently authoritative to make him believable as a military man. I would have liked a clearer delivery of his lines though. Cassio arrived, and spoke the lines which show that he doesn’t know that Othello has married Desdemona. Given that he would later be named as a go-between for that pair, it always seems odd to me that he wasn’t aware of the wedding plans, but perhaps the nature of this particular ceremony had led Othello to keep it a secret even from his lieutenant.
After Brabantio’s attempt to arrest Othello, and Othello’s calm response, they left for the Duke’s court, and at this point the strip lights came on. There was also a microphone, lowered from above, which the Duke used to address us all, for the audience had suddenly been co-opted onto the Duke’s council – a nice touch. But that was the only concession to the modern setting – the differing messages about the size and intention of the Turkish fleet were all delivered in person.
The arrival of Othello and Brabantio put the military discussion on hold for a while, and Brabantio finally calmed down enough for Othello to put his case to the Duke. I still lost a few words, but on the whole his story was clear, and while it didn’t soften Brabantio’s attitude, it set us up nicely for Desdemona’s arrival. On the line “and my redemption thence”, Othello held his crucifix to emphasise that his redemption from slavery was combined with an (apparent) conversion to Christianity. I became aware during this speech of a sea of white faces in the seats opposite: appropriate if perhaps a little unfortunate – this production deserves a wider audience.
Norah Lopez Holden was playing a very modern Desdemona. Her delivery was crystal clear throughout. She was confident without being arrogant, and spoke intelligently of her “divided duty”. Although she was unhappy that her father took the news of her marriage badly, she seemed resigned to it, since she still had her husband. Of course, no one else knew that the marriage wasn’t a Christian one.
Roderigo was wonderfully silly about losing Desdemona to Othello, and Iago had to work quite hard to get him back on side. When Iago confidently asserted “but we have reason to cool our raging motions” I thought to myself ‘not in Roderigo’s case’. Again, Mark Lockyer’s performance was wonderfully clear and detailed. His planning session after Roderigo left gave us a strong impression of Iago’s own suffering at the thought that he might have been cuckolded by Othello, and his inventive brain soon came up with the perfect revenge against Othello, one which would also allow him to ruin Cassio’s career. As he descended the dark path into bitterness and jealousy, the lights gradually went out so that his final lines were said in near darkness.
That soon changed. With thunder crashing around us, random strip lights flickered to give the effect of lightning. I think some of the lines may have been cut here, or perhaps I just didn’t hear them. It’s one of the problems with staging a storm scene – too tame and it seems unreasonable for people to be rushing around in great concern, too strong and you’ve no idea what they’re saying. This version was about right, and quite short too, with Cassio arriving safely in Cyprus not long after Iago had left the stage in Venice.
Desdemona, Iago, Emilia and Roderigo weren’t far behind, but Cassio still had time to produce some extravagant praise of Othello’s new wife. He was also very touchy-feely with Desdemona, giving Iago no difficulty in seeing potential adultery between them, and it didn’t help that Cassio gave Emilia a full-lip kiss as well. What came across was that Iago’s own jealousy was warping his mind so much that innocent behaviour was being misinterpreted, making him close kin to Leontes in The Winter’s Tale.
The battle of wits between Desdemona and Iago was included, though trimmed. Othello rushed to Desdemona when he arrived, and they spent a minute or so locked in a fierce embrace, with the rest of the group finding somewhere else to look. He came up for air after a bit and, realising they were not alone, finally greeted the others and arranged for his luggage to be brought ashore before heading off for some serious personal time with his wife.
Roderigo had stayed in the background, but now came forward to speak with Iago and to give us all a laugh. He wore a tunic over his trousers, along with a turban and a fake beard, and looked really silly. Iago persuaded him to join in the plan to discredit Cassio, and all was set. Iago’s revenge was building up nicely, though it was clear he still didn’t know exactly how it would bear fruit.
They ditched the proclamation, instead getting the party started with Bianca and some others coming on, dancing. Desdemona and Othello did their raunchy dance in the middle, and Cassio went over to Bianca to dance with her. They left, and a metal keg of beer was brought on, followed by three of the soldiers doing a strange homoerotic dance/mime. One of them had a red bra which he put on, another chap was pretending to shag him from behind, and the third joined in from the front. Can’t say it did anything for me, but presumably the soldiers were having fun.
They ran off when Iago and Cassio came on, Iago with a guitar. He skilfully worked on Cassio and persuaded him to stay and have a few drinks. His song, that well-known military number “Fuck ‘em all, fuck ‘em all, the long and the short and the tall” went down well with the men, even if the guitar strumming was a bit off-key, and before you know it Cassio was in the middle of a group of men being handed a bottle of vodka. Pride kicked in, and he took a big swig, to much cheering. More swigs followed, and Cassio was drunk in less time than it’s taken me to type this out. Embarrassingly drunk. His line “this is my right hand” was addressed to Iago, and since Cassio was holding out his left hand to Iago’s face as he said it, his next words “and this is my left” were actually a joke on Cassio’s part. Poor chap. He was scarcely off stage before Iago was giving Montano the low-down on Cassio’s drink problem, and it wasn’t long after that when Cassio returned, chasing Roderigo. The fight went on as usual, and brought an angry Othello from his bedroom to find out what was going on.
Iago delivered his “I had rather ha’ this tongue cut from my mouth than it should do offence to Michael Cassio” wonderfully well, and Cassio’s fate was sealed. Desdemona arrived, then departed with Othello, and Iago was left alone with the now disgraced Cassio to create even more mischief. His ‘honest’ dealings were all the more villainous for being, as he pointed out himself, “the course to win the Moor again”, while giving him the ideal opportunity to plant the seed of jealousy in Othello’s mind. He threw his own crucifix away on “divinity of hell”, and after giving another brief pep talk to Roderigo, was ready to leave when Cassio returned to the stage (no sign of those poor clowns – almost always cut from the text).
Having promised Cassio that he would arrange for him to have some time alone with Desdemona, Iago exited, while Emilia spoke briefly with Cassio before Desdemona herself arrived (act 3 scene 2 was also gone). Something I had noticed during the arrival at Cyprus was repeated here – Desdemona and Cassio did a ‘pinky promise’, linking their pinkies to bind the deal, another sign of intimacy which Desdemona could get away with because of her youthful innocence, but in Cassio it did seem too personal.
Iago made good use of this opportunity to hint at some kind of suspicious behaviour on Cassio’s part, and while Desdemona was wrapping Othello round her other little finger, I glanced at Iago to see if there was any reaction to “What, Michael Cassio, that came a-wooing with you”: none that I could see, although later he did ask Othello about Cassio’s knowledge of their relationship. His echoing of Othello’s lines was as funny as it should be without getting in the way of the scene, and his honest admissions – “it is my nature’s plague to spy into abuses” – merely made his deceitful hints all the more believable. His complete U-turn on the importance of reputation was another masterpiece, and having hooked his fish, he expertly played it into his net. This was one scene where I would have liked a stronger performance from Othello, though his youth did have the advantage of making Iago’s success more plausible – the older man manipulating the less experienced younger one.
Desdemona returned to fetch Othello in for dinner, and from my position, it seemed that the handkerchief simply fell unnoticed from her back pocket. Emilia picked it up and tucked it into her bra before Iago came back on stage. Katy Stephens hadn’t had much to do so far as Emilia, but this was where such strong casting began to pay off. Emilia is a relatively unconsidered part, important to the plot but too small to attract major actresses. When we do get someone of Katy’s calibre playing the role, it’s an experience to savour, and she gave us plenty to enjoy. This Emilia clearly didn’t know why her husband was no longer being affectionate with her, even refusing to touch her. She was hurt, but not so much that she’d given up the possibility of restoring their former relationship. The hanky was an opportunity to do that, and although she teased Iago a little, it was soon in his hands, and precious little she got in return.
Othello was deep into his jealous fit when he came back on stage. Iago threw his jacket down and began to leave at one point but was called back, and with feigned reluctance was finally persuaded to give Othello more ‘proof’ of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness. This was another scene which flagged a little in the middle, but it built up to an excellent climax. After Iago’s claim that he’d seen Desdemona’s hanky in Cassio’s hand earlier, Othello lost it completely. He had been holding his gold chain – looking to his Islamic faith for support – and broke it on “blow to heaven”, with beads scattering on the ground. He took out the crucifix which had been tucked into his shirt on “your religion” (words not in my text) and Iago held onto that crucifix when swearing his oath to help Othello get his revenge. Calmer now, and convinced that Iago was his loyal friend, Othello gave him back his jacket on “now thou art my lieutenant”, and that was where they took the interval. Phew!
With such a minimalist set, there was little to do during the interval but clear up the gold beads, and after discussing much that we’d enjoyed, we were ready for the second half. Desdemona went straight into “where should I lose the handkerchief, Emilia”, not that there were many hiding places on that stage. They managed to do a bit of hunting around even so, and then Othello arrived. He was now so caught up in his jealous imaginings that Desdemona couldn’t get him off the subject of the handkerchief and onto Cassio.
After Othello left, Iago brought Cassio on, leaving him there to go and check on Othello. Desdemona managed to persuade herself that she was expecting too much of her husband, given that he had to deal with important affairs of state. Some of her points were valid, but Emilia was still concerned about Othello’s changed behaviour, and of course she has had experience of a jealous husband.
Bianca arrived to find Cassio alone, and took him to task for staying away from her so long. I’ve seen Biancas who were more suspicious of the hanky than this one, but she did a decent job of showing us Cassio’s lack of honourable intentions toward her. It’s a strange thing, but this play keeps telling us that Othello and Cassio are ‘noble’; however, when we look closely at their actions, especially where women are involved, they’re anything but noble. After all, it wasn’t just Desdemona who deceived her father about her marriage: Othello also failed to inform Brabantio of his intentions, and seems as guilty of any betrayal in that respect as she does.
But these thoughts came after the performance. For now, the play moved into the scene between Iago and Othello, where Iago sets up the eavesdropping trick. For this scene, a punching bag was hung from a central hook, and Othello, who had bandages round his hands, did some boxing practice during their conversation. This was OK, and only mildly distracting from the dialogue. Othello was angry and forceful with Iago, determined to get ‘evidence’ of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, but he didn’t resort to torture or anything more than strong threats of violence. For his ‘trance’, Othello simply fell to his knees, clearly suffering from the extreme emotions which Iago had provoked in him, and distracted enough not to see Cassio when he came on briefly.
When Iago had arranged for Othello to listen in to their conversation, Othello lurked off to the far left while Iago asked Cassio about Bianca. Cassio used the punching bag to demonstrate Bianca’s behaviour – surprisingly lewd for a public place – and to top it all off, Bianca returned with Desdemona’s handkerchief to confirm Othello’s suspicions. When Cassio left, Othello’s rage was unstoppable, although Iago was skilful enough to channel it in the direction he wanted. The arrival of Lodovico and Othello’s striking of Desdemona all served to raise the tension further, showing us a very different Othello to the opening scenes.
Alone with Emilia, Othello refused to be persuaded by her testimony against the ‘proof’ provided by Iago. These two characters were very comfortable with one another, I noticed. Emilia touched Othello’s face tenderly towards the end of the scene, and while Othello didn’t respond in kind, he showed no sign of repudiating such familiarity. Emilia even kissed him before she left, suggesting that Iago’s jealousy may not be groundless after all, and raising another question mark over Othello’s ‘nobleness’ (although it’s just possible that he may simply have different standards of male/female interactions).
While Emilia was comforting Desdemona after Othello’s tirade, Iago showed some concern when Emilia touched on his own jealousy but quickly dismissed her words. With the women off stage, Roderigo came on, and that chap did indeed show a bit of “mettle”. He was soon seduced again by Iago’s flattering tongue, and with the various killings set up, Iago headed off for supper.
Tables and chairs were brought on, along with the remains of a meal – cloth, plates, wine glasses, etc. – and this made for a very intimate pre-bedtime scene between the two women. Before that, however, the men were still at the table, and Emilia was again cosying up to a powerful man, this time Lodovico. Her “I know a lady in Venice…” came across as a thinly disguised reference to herself, and only Desdemona’s distraction and inexperience prevented her from spotting that. Certainly Emilia’s later comment, “who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch”, suggested that she had been looking to advance Iago’s career for many years, although not with much success it would seem.
When the women were alone, Desdemona sang the “willow, willow” song, but not sadly. She was joking about it, as if it was too sad a song to take seriously. She also sang the lyrics in Arabic (I presume), and the two women danced for a bit before their final conversation about adultery. There were giggles along the way, as they both had some more wine, and I’ve never felt such a strong sense of watching a ‘real’ scene between two people before, ever.
When they left for bed, Desdemona was more cheerful than usual for this play, and before the tables were cleared for the next scene, Iago came on and nicked the breadknife. Once the stage was cleared, we were plunged into darkness again, apart from the dim light of the torches – battery-powered this time. There was enough light to see the essentials – Cassio attacked and Roderigo killed – and there was a bit more light once Lodovico and Gratiano arrived. With the body identified, Bianca falsely accused and Cassio taken off for medical treatment, we were into the finishing straight, and a relatively short one it proved to be.
A lantern was hung from the central hook, and Desdemona was provided with a skimpy futon and pillow for her bed. She came in wearing leggings and a top, and listening to her iPod via earplugs. She sat cross-legged on the futon, meditating for a while, before lying back. Othello came on, and Desdemona smiled when he kissed her on her wrists and then on her forehead. She pleaded desperately when he said he would kill her, and fought back as hard as she could to stop him, but he was much too strong for her.
There were no bed curtains to draw, so from here on the text was severely cut (and none the worse for that). I was very taken with the way in which Emilia’s repetition of Othello’s words echoed his earlier conversation with Iago, but this time Emilia was finally realising what had happened. She let her husband have both barrels, metaphorically speaking, and was stabbed by him, but too late to shut her up.
I think Iago left, but was brought back along with Cassio for the finale. After speaking part of his final speech, Othello cut his own throat with the edge of his crucifix. (I wasn’t sure if he had drawn a small knife from it, but as it appeared whole afterwards, I suspect it simply had a sharp edge.) Lodovico spoke the closing lines, and that was that, a remarkably brisk ending. We gave them lots of applause, and left feeling very enthused by our evening.
© 2017 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me