South London and Shakespeare. Historical bedfellows of course, given the Globe’s south-of-the-river patch of land, but now the Peckham Theatre Company is bringing Othello, Shakespeare’s classic tale of love and betrayal, right up to date with a modern South London resetting. Director Anthony Green has been overwhelmed by “a barrage of positive feedback, both verbally and online,” as audiences express their fascination with this project. But what is it about Peckham that makes for the perfect performance of this age old classic?
For regular theatregoers, the concept of resetting Shakespeare isn’t exactly a novel one. So what prompted Green to set his version in a mysterious world of Western military security companies and private armies? Put simply, his determination to find and focus on the narrative’s optimistic fight for love, rather than dwelling on the loss of it. In this sense Green likens the project to the London 2012 Olympic Games with their shared spirit of positive opportunity. Speaking personal, Green talks of how there was “no outlet for theatre in [his] hometown of Blackburn” and coming from that background, “this Olympics-inspired project means creating a legacy and a voice for young people”. Indeed, Green’s production is performed by a cast of young actors in the intimate 120 seater CLF Cafe of the Bussey Building in Peckham, which has already played host to the Royal Court’s Theatre Local.
An actor with 16 years’ experience, Green is embracing directing “as an additional expression of [his] art” and with this production, his art is finding expression through posing the question: “‘can love win?’” This is in fact so potent and “a question so integral to [his] Othello that it is even the tagline on the flyer”. Green has focused specifically on Desdemona’s attempt to win Othello’s love back amongst the traditionally male-dominated cast, yet Desdemona continually faces Othello’s struggles against his insecurities. Green is striving to give Shakespeare’s writing a tangible relevance for modern audiences through the eternal concept of love prevailing. After all, more of us than will readily admit have tried to secure love again after separation or loss. Her desperate emotional plight paves the way for the extreme physical fights which ensue between the male characters. Clearly, the testosterone is in full force at these moments and whilst it wasn’t Green’s intention to incite this energy, he admits that “it is inevitable with male cast of eight, and only an additional three females”.
Marcello Marascalchi’s work as Othello’s fight director has sculpted and choreographed this energy into something more finely crafted and arresting for the stage. Having previously gained experience working for the Royal Opera House and the Royal Court, Marascalchi has enhanced the fight scenes with knives and actors are dragged across the stage, “in order to create a very real sense of violence”. Tension, violence, love: these opposing themes and strands of the narrative coexist, each providing context for the others and highlighting the violent edge of Desdemona’s – and Othello’s – passion. Green and Marascalchi have created a man’s world for a modern audience, one in which women’s power is of sexual intrigue and challenging relationships. “Focusing on the relationships woven between the characters of Othello, [Green aims] to steer audiences away from the interpretive notion of domestic prey” and instead towards the very human yearning for love, in direct contrast to – but fully justifying – the violent fighting that precedes and surrounds it.
These fights have all the more impact in the CLF Cafe’s narrow performing space. Up close and personal to the action, audiences have nowhere to hide. “A traverse setting additionally aided the lighting of the production from a low roof, and complemented the minimal set,” Green adds, his focus attuned to the emotive. A production which particularly explores the localised battle of Othello against his own demons, the staging of Iago’s famous soliloquies was another result of the unusual performance space. Iago, desperate for revenge and having destroyed Othello’s relationship with Desdemona, directs soliloquies to individual audience members, inviting them to consider both their natural empathy for Othello’s loss of love and the invitingly horrific charisma of Iago. An intriguing study in the complexity of character, Green is obviously keen to offer more than meets the eye in this production.
A directorial debut full of violence, emotion and challenges, Green speaks of his young cast with pride. The company grew out of the spirit of the Royal Court’s Theatre Local and is clearly inspired and enhanced by this legacy, rather than beholden to it. As for Green himself, from a young man growing up “stifled by the lack of local theatre company”, there’s a clear exhilaration inherent in the opportunity to “direct his artistic expression through an additional channel”. So for an Othello that’s as violent, vengeful and vexing as you could hope for, Peckham is the place.
Othello plays at the CLF Cafe at The Bussey Building, Peckham until 22nd February. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.othellopeckham.com.
Image credit: Adam Levy