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The Theatreguide.London Review

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse   Spring 2024

The engaging three-hour Globe Theatre production of Shakespeare's Othello directed by Ola Ince touches on the themes of racism, domestic violence and the tension of a new world promising to reward on merit but still shaped by class background in the contemporary setting of the London Metropolitan Police

It also tries to draw our attention to the struggling mental health of Othello by introducing a second Othello to physically reflect the inner trauma and conflicted impulses of a man still in love with a woman he is increasingly angry with.

The fluent confident performance of the cast is always watchable. The male characters have London voices and laddish behaviour that is nowhere more pronounced than in the scene in which they sing and dance in a manner reminiscent of football supporters after a good match.

Iago, played with relaxed amiability by Ralph Davis, seems to be everyone’s mate, and not that pushy as he encourages others into reckless behaviour.

His motivation is resentment at being passed over for the post of inspector, by Detective Chief Inspector Othello who instead chooses the “Eton boy Cassio” (Oli Higginson) a less attractive character than he’s often portrayed.

This Cassio rarely seems serious, shows off his capacity to drink, and tends to familiarity with women, mistreating Bianca (Maggie Musgrove), touching and kissing the cheek of Emilia (Charlotte Bate) and addressing the “Chelsea Girl” Desdemona as Dezzy in a way that implies an established friendship.

The women characters are confident and assertive. Poppy Gilbert gives us an independent-minded Desdemona, an easy match for the seemingly unassertive Othello who is pulled one moment by a conversation with Iago and shortly afterwards carried in a different direction by Desdemona.

In an early scene, where the civilian Desdemona arrives at Scotland Yard to find Othello handcuffed, she takes the keys without permission from her father, and after releasing her husband hangs the keys around her neck.

However, in presenting the women as defiantly assertive, the show understates their ambiguous feelings and the terrible danger of their situation.

Thus the crucial atmospheric scene in which Emilia and Desdemona talk with a growing sense of approaching violence is softened by for instance removing the Willow Song which reflects that mood.

The exception to the show's serious treatment of the characters is Roderigo (Sam Swann) who is reduced to the level of a cartoon figure who though from Chelsea with land to sell, gets a laugh when he enters as a pizza delivery worker and later climbs from beneath the stage in dirty high visibility heavy duty yellow overalls and helmet.

Ola Ince tends to egg the pudding in a way that undermines the good elements of her production. The physical movements of Ira Mandela Siobhan as the inner turmoil of Othello that might have been very worth watching in a different show not only distract from what else is happening but can make Othello seem even less authoritative.

If Shakespeare’s words are enough to indicate the disturbance of Desdemona, Emilia and even the sacking of Cassio, why not let them do the same for Othello and cut out the dancing subconscious that is following him about?

Using this pained alter ego Othello to emphasise aspects of his life can sometimes weaken a theme's impact. There are moments in which Othello physically writhes in pain, while groups of police officers appear on a balcony above the stage as their distorted voices are heard with difficulty over police walkie-talkies casually making racist comments.

The weakness of that addition also can’t make up for the production removing the opening scene with its more explicit racism of Iago and Rodrigo who shout such racist warnings to the father of Desdemona as the claim that “an old black ram Is topping your white ewe.”

Ola has an eye for the progressive themes of Othello which are delivered in relaxed naturalistic performances. She should concentrate on these strengths and trust Shakespeare’s text to explore the characters’ mental health.

Keith McKenna

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Review of Othello - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse  2024

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