Director Richard Twyman makes a stirring case for setting his touring production of Othello, now playing in-the-round at Wilton’s Music Hall, in modern dress.
In one scene early on, when Othello (Abraham Popoola) reaches into his coat to produce some documents from the Duke (Christopher Bianchi), Roderigo (Brian Lonsdale) recoils by instinct, as if certain this imposing man of colour must be going for a weapon. The almost all-white collection of courtiers, assembled in their matching suits, nod to each other upon hearing of Othello’s elopement with Desdemona (Norah Lopez Holden), suggesting their unspoken racial suspicions have finally been affirmed.
This Othello pulls no punches in making it clear that the titular Venetian general is up against an engrained system of discrimination that looks quite a bit like ours. But despite this timely potency, the production’s overall steadiness and clarity has to contend with an occasionally slow pace, along with some unevenness, both across the performances and within Twyman’s occasionally misguided re-imagining.
Chief among Twyman’s innovations, this Othello remains a secretly practicing Muslim who exchanges Arabic marriage vows with Desdemona despite his professed conversion. Only Iago (Mark Lockyer) seems to know the truth, helping Othello exchange his traditional attire for a large cross. This interpretation should be entirely effective, not least in the ever-relevant suggestion that Iago may be partly motivated by Islamophobia, but Twyman undermines his central concept by surrounding it with less meaningful reinventions that only distract.
An extended scene of drunken revelry involving a bra and a taser registers as aggressively superfluous. When Othello enters Desdemona’s bedchamber to slay her, she’s not asleep, she’s just meditating with her headphones in: that image adds little. And a curious, lively take on the final scene between Desdemona and Emilia jolts in its unexpectedness but doesn’t quite fit.
The pivotal pairing of Othello and Iago features a fittingly stark contrast here. Popoola’s Othello is a man of passion, equally ardent in his jubilant love for Desdemona and his paralysing fury when Iago persuades him that she has been unfaithful. When Othello declares early on, “She had eyes and chose me,” there’s no question that he sees Desdemona’s selection as a source of pride and confidence, not uncertainty.
Lockyer’s Iago, though, in his hapless, anxious, credible genuflections, seems just the man to undo Othello’s surety. Punctuating nearly every word with a frantic gesture, this Iago is a magician, his sleight of hand obscuring the cruelty behind his insinuations and even the sense that Iago has thought through the implications of his suggestive observations before he’s shared them with Othello. Perhaps it’s right that the stewing, scheming version of Iago who speaks directly to the audience in soliloquy should be unrecognisable from the Iago we see winning over his victims – not just Othello but Iago and Emilia (and even Desdemona) too – but some of the scenes between the play’s leading men lack real urgency, so gentle and apologetic does this Iago seem in his machinations.
Holden’s sassy, smart Desdemona comes across as strikingly young – perhaps even adolescent. She’s a powerful figure at first, but it only diminishes Desdemona that she never shows any clear gradations of doubt about the state of her marriage even after Othello has accused and attacked her. Lonsdale’s Roderigo and Piers Hampton’s Cassio both stand out for their crystalline delivery of Shakespeare’s language; in a particularly nice textual moment, Cassio drunkenly struggles to pronounce “craftily qualified”. In the smaller roles of the Duke and Brabantio, Bianchi and Alan Coveney also make strong impressions.
As Iago’s manipulated wife Emilia, Katy Stephens delivers the most consistently convincing performance, culminating in her fiery, emotional confrontation with Othello and Iago in the final scene. In contrast to her husband’s steely lack of expression when observing others interacting centre-stage, Emilia can’t conceal her smile early on as she watches Desdemona and Othello together, as if imagining a happiness she has never, and will never, experience.
Whether it’s Desdemona’s headphones or the overdramatic lighting and sound design, Twyman could place more trust throughout in his generally skilful actors, and in his compelling reading of the play, to tell this familiar story from a fresh angle. It’s a cogent production, if not entirely persuasive: as Iago’s villainy proves, total persuasiveness is a delicate art.
Othello is playing at Wilton’s Music Hall until 3 June.