Shakespeare’s Othello is without a doubt a masterwork. Many of the themes – xenophobia, the place of women, jealousy, love, ambition – are certainly just as relevant to today’s London as when the piece was first performed. Unfortunately, Jennifer Lunn’s over-conceptualised production seems to miss the point of Shakespeare’s text.
First performed in around 1604, the play follows Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army. He marries Desdemona, the white daughter of a senator, and this match causes a great deal of controversy. Throughout the play, the ambitious and manipulative Iago plots Othello’s downfall, poisoning his mind until lies and jealousy turn Othello into a murderous, hateful savage. It is a complex work, with some of Shakespeare’s most fascinating characters.
Lunn’s production places Othello on the streets of South London, and according to the programme note they have imagined an Othello in the context of “young men jostling for power within gangs; fighting over their territories and their women.” It seems at first glance that such a translation could work, but it is not executed with sufficient depth.
Updating Shakespeare can, and often does, work, and Culturcated Theatre Company’s aim to make Shakespeare feel relevant to a younger audience is commendable. However, in this case the modernisation feels imposed on the text, rather than organic, and the material is overpowered. Instead of being a timely and relevant production, it fails to get to the heart of the issues it touches upon. The characters feel uprooted; the structures that are so central to the play have been removed. There is no contrast between the civilised, controlled Venice and the hot and tempestuous Cyprus where Othello becomes wild and barbaric, and the absence of a distinct hierarchical system means Othello cannot fall from a high, powerful position in the same way. There is simply too much missing for this interpretation to be entirely successful.
There are, however, some good performances from the very young cast. Sofia Stuart stands out as an excellent Desdemona, and Zainab Hasan is also praiseworthy as her friend and confidante, Emilia. The two of them share a scene towards the end of the play where they sit with a glass of wine and put the world to rights, which is strikingly poignant. Ntonga ‘Tango’ Mwanza’s Othello, unfortunately, seems somewhat lost from the very beginning. The character has to change a huge amount throughout the play – from a respectable public figure to an uncontrolled savage – for Iago’s manipulation to appear successful. Mwanza, however, lacked development; the character didn’t disintegrate as he must for the tragic denouement to feel natural. He did show potential in some scenes with Iago, and if the two had played upon the strong, passionate language a little more, both performances could have been much stronger. At times it felt like the words were rushed over, which was a shame. Having said that, while Westman as Iago lacked grounding, Iago’s famous “Put money in thy purse” speech was well delivered.
Overall, the production was a commendable attempt to update Shakespeare’s Othello, but unfortunately the concept wasn’t sufficiently anchored in the text. The young cast do show potential for the future, however, and the production is supporting the worthy cause of the Jimmy Mizen Foundation. And of course, it is impossible to ignore the immeasurable power of Shakespeare’s writing, which is always worth seeing.
Othello is playing at the Brockley Jack Theatre until 10 November. For more information and tickets, see the Brockley Jack Theatre website.