One of the reasons why Shakespeare is the heart-blood of English theatre is not only his extraordinary ear for language, but even more so for the humanity in his plays. We can relate to any of his plays today, and though you sometimes feel as lost as if in a Latin lesson, there is something there that still resonates with us. It can be a gift and a curse: we can bend and stretch the context as we please and re-invent it to fit almost any setting. The question is then, how slavishly we must follow his text, and how much of its essence is lost when we decide to shake it up a bit.
The contrast between the old and the new couldn’t be bigger with Time Zone Theatre’s Othello at the Rose Playhouse. Being Bankside’s first Tudor theatre, the ghosts of Shakespeare, Marlowe and their contemporaries hover in the air as you enter the remains of the old theatre, located just around the corner from The Globe. For thespians this site is extraordinarily exciting, being half revealed, half concealed and perhaps still covering artefacts from Elizabethan theatre life. Needless to say there is a certain presence in the room, knowing you could be sitting on top of a fish bone Marlowe once chewed on or the drips of Shakespeare’s sweat. But as a rebellion against its foundation and host, Othello is transferred to the modern world of business in London. It’s a brave choice that has to be applauded – and the competitive coldness of their environment shades a contemporary and interesting light on the characters – though at times it jars with the text.
Othello is a play of jealousy, power and ambition and is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays about the human condition. The sly manipulator Iago fits perfectly into director Pamela Schermann’s office world, and the power play between him and Othello is cleverly highlighted by the setting. The air is crisp, the tempo fast and it is very relatable in a modern capital city like London. However, we lose the intimacy and the sensuous element to the play as all characters are creatures of the business world and only fare in the office space.
As his office playground is the character’s perfect habitat, Trevor Murphy’s Iago is the master puppeteer in any sense: he is in perfect control of everyone, including audience, to a point where his obsession for control becomes almost perverse. The rest of the characters seem like mere objects in his fantasy, and though the small cast inhabit the world of the play with energy and clarity, we don’t really get under their skin but almost see them through the eyes of Iago.
Apart from the lack of private space to support the more intimate and delicate moments in the play, the set is intriguing as the Rose Playhouse’s old performance space is revealed as Cassio makes his escape. The lighting is almost atmospherically haunting, and the presence of the old theatre in contrast with the crisp modernity of the play is what lifts it. As a whole there is a great focus on the realism in text, apart from Othello’s broken speech at the end that drives off the track of verse and lands somewhere a bit muddy.
Othello is brave with its simplistic setting, and as a concept it is clever. And although it drops at times throughout and loses some of its sensuous tenderness, we are somewhat enthralled by the space itself, being somehow weirdly in the presence of tradition. If you haven’t been to the Rose Playhouse yet and you are just slightly thespian, I suggest you get a move on.
Othello is playing at Rose Playhouse until 28 February. For more information and tickets, see the Rose Playhouse website. Photo by Robert Piwko.