By William Shakespeare
Directed by Ellen MacDougall
Dramaturg: Joel Horwood
Music by Orlando Gough
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Sunday 12th March 2017, 13.30
Kurt Egyiawan – Othello
Natalie Klamar – Desdemona
Sam Spruell- Iago
Joanna Horton – Michelle Cassio
Jon Foster – Brabantio / Montano
Peter Hobday – Roderigo / Duke of Venice
Nadia Albina – Bianca
Thalissa Teixeira – Emilia
Natasha Cowley- ensemble
(with Nadia Lbina – lead vocal)
Jeremy Avis – MD, vocals
Peter Braithwaite – vocals
Joyce Moholoagae- vocals
Malinda Parris – vocals
Sam Wanamaker has my unswerving admiration for creating The Globe complex. The 2016-2017 Wonder Noir season draws to a close with the play that Wanamaker himself was best-known for. He played Iago against Paul Robeson’s Othello in 1959.
Paul Robeson – Othello, Sam Wanamaker- Iago, 1959
What would the founder of the theatre make of the 2017 production? Othello is the first major Shakespeare tragedy performed in the Wanamaker Playhouse. The Winter’s Tale was done there, and is also a major play, but you have to admit that Cymbeline, Pericles and Two Gentlemen of Verona are not Shakespeare’s premier league. Othello is.
Cassio is now Michelle Cassio, so female … is the constant gender switching just beginning to get tired? Tiring? Tiresome? On the other hand, my companion has always disliked the sexism in the original play and welcomed a change. Any change. The Emma Rice regime requires dramaturgs for everything. I guess a good director cuts. But a dramaturg not only cuts but decides Shakespeare will benefit from a bit of polishing and addition.
The play opens with a bed covered with bloody sheets. It’s supposed to be the marriage bed, stay on stage throughout, then be the death bed. The amount of blood on it at the beginning would require a couple of sacrificial goats, or a full human eight pints, rather than a hymenal stain. An actor takes a SmartPhone shot of it … more later.
Othello (Kurt Egyiawan) by candlelight
There is excellent use of candlelight … the Wanamaker is becoming more confident and more adroit with the possibilities. Roderigo and Iago waking Brabantio, to inform him that his daughter has run off with Othello, the Moor, is lit by single handheld candles. It’s supposed to be a dark Jacobean night. It definitely is. Jon Foster is the strongest and most furious Brabantio I’ve seen.
Accents struck me … most of the cast is light conversational estuary, leaving Othello, Desdemona and Emilia as the RP well-spoken trio. When Peter Hobday is the Duke of Venice, he’s lightly chatty in an Essex man way. I didn’t like his onstage transformation back into Roderigo (removing the crown and cloak) at all, as it brought laughs in a quite unfunny moment. Later, I disliked Brabantio’s onstage transformation into Montano, the Governor of Cyprus. Apparently they used a strobe light to cover it (with no warnings on the door – a bit careless when Othello later succumbs to an epileptic fit!) On the upside they are doing the whole play with just NINE actors and four singers. A major achievement.
Kurt Egyiawan (Othello) and Sam Spruell (Iago)
Kurt Egyiawan has the lead role as Othello. A natural inclination, given a mighty warrior, would have been to cast physically larger. His intensity wins through. I thought him a superb Othello, and I have to say I hadn’t liked his Angelo in the Globe’s Measure for Measure much, though it was hard playing cold and straight among so much jollity. Here he was magnificent. A little production side moan though, is that he puts on his armour breastplate before stabbing himself by shoving the blade up and under it. It shouted “The sack of stage blood is inside the breastplate.” It looked convoluted. I guess there was a thing about dying with your boots on, or for Vikings, with weapon in hand, but I don’t think it extends to Venetian breastplates.
Sam Spruell is a somewhat wide boy Iago. Also excellent. He had to fight against a bizarre costume decision. In both the recent big modern dress Gulf War uniform versions, at the National Theatre and at the RSC, much was made of the drunken carousing which ends up with Iago getting Cassio drunk, so that he can get him to start a fight and get into deep trouble with Othello. In both it was done as modern soldiers, and a disco beat helped. They must have seen those … both were very good. So they decide to do a squaddie piss up here. They put Iago in a net curtain skirt, black female wig and bare chest and had him dancing close up with Othello. Bad. Othello is NOT part of the piss up. The cross-dressing stuff may be what squaddies do, I don’t know, but it shoehorned a gender issue in from nowhere … you begin to think being transgender or homosexual will be made compulsory …. It also left Sam Spruell having to do serious scenes in a net curtain and bare chest. Full credit to the man for carrying it off against the costume.
The other thing about our squaddie piss up, is that an amp and microphone is brought on for Nadia Albina (Bianca … but I say Nadia, because Bianca hasn’t been established yet) to sing one of the contemporary pop songs. No beats track. As she has proven earlier in the play, Nadia Albina is perfectly capable of filling the space unaccompanied, and actually handclaps to establish a beat and unaccompanied voice would have avoided the deliberate anachronism. I think forcing that in seemed to me a deliberate digit in the air to the critics of electrics and speakers at the Globe. OK., I sympathise to a degree, but it was totally unnecessary. And doing stuff to deliberately irritate a section of the audience may be why The Globe is having a new director in 2018.
Natalie Klamar (Desdemona)
Contemporary pop songs are used throughout sung acapella by the four vocalists, sometimes plus Nadia Albina. They’re sung almost like Gregorian chant, and it works very well indeed. See below … PLEASE CREDIT THE SONGWRITERS in the programme. Everyone else gets credited.
Natalie Klamar is a vulnerable, slight Desdemona, and casting had to be careful here … a taller actor would have been larger than Othello. She fights back so well at the end as she realises that Othello is going to kill her, that a larger lady would have looked easily able to beat the slight Othello.
Thalissa Teixeira is a first-rate Emilia too, but I found the physical casting a little odd here. Emilia is Iago’s wife. Iago gets the worst racist lines. It’s not explained … OK, maybe the audience should seek subtexts about their relationship, but given a cast of just nine, and the subject matter … Othello’s isolation and “otherness” … I’d have cast Othello plus eight white actors. Yes, that would automatically have meant being slagged off by critics (as Peter Hall was at the Rose for nearly all white casting in Wars of The Roses), but it is what the play is about. My old boss always told me about how he played Othello in Nigeria as the only white actor in an otherwise all-black cast.
Emilia (Thalissa Teixeira)
Joanna Horton’s (Michelle) Cassio opens the play, tying up her hair and donning armour. In those Gulf War mega productions, female soldiers made perfect sense and they had them. So transpose that to early 17th century? She’s great … fierce, easily winning the fights, distraught when she loses her reputation by getting into a drunken brawl. Yes, every bit of being a female soldier works fine BUT … the concept fails on Othello’s motivation for suspecting her. See below.
Michelle Cassio (Joanna Horton)
So how do you rate it? In many ways with a tiny cast of nine, and a powerfully intense set of performances, this truly begs for five stars. BUT …
You can add lines as the Dramaturg (or rather Dramaturd … I’m playing to his sense of alleged “humour”) did so often. Yes, sometimes you applaud stuff like naming characters more often than Shakespeare did. I liked many short, pithy additions. There were a lot of cuts of the Jacobean text and a lot of additions. Some worked, some stood out like a sore thumb. The long verse where Iago does a “back of the school bus” rhyme, ending with what has to be “cunt” but leaves a pause, was childish. I do not mind C-word (if you prefer) puns. Heaven knows, Shakespeare used them, “let us speak of country matters” indeed. But a little subtlety is required. Not a question of offence, just bad writing. MINUS ONE STAR
I’ll be Glad, if you’ll be Frank. Michelle Casio. An assumed Lesbian crush on Desdemona? I never believed it. It relies on us knowing that (a) Michelle Casio has a female mistress, Bianca (b) the offensive connection, which heterosexuals often make, that all homosexual people fancy all other people of their gender. At the National Theatre, two days earlier, a female lesbian Malvolvia played by Tamsin Greig, worked so well that you accepted it totally. It fitted, you never thought whether it was reasonable or not. Tamsin Greig’s appearance and repressed air made it credible. She only fancied Olivia, not “any female.” Yet, here I thought I was being hammered over the head with someone’s personal agenda which had nothing whatsoever to do with the play. Should we have to explain this? Othello is an early 17th century Moor. No one gave a flying fig about what the concubines or indeed male eunuchs did or diddled in the Moorish harem. The point is that Renaissance Venice would require a gentlewoman to be chaperoned with all non-family males. Other contact might be suspicious. A female being in the same room as a gentlewoman? Not worthy of mention. Why on Earth would Othello see it as odd, or Iago be able to twist it into a lesbian affair? Only by that thought that all homosexuals are after every person in the world of the same gender.
Male jealousy, as in the great apes, is (however reprehensible) a biological imperative. I heard of a cameraman who found himself lifted up and dropped into a bush by a male gorilla after a female gorilla started grooming the camera man on a wildlife shoot for the gorilla sequence on Life on Earth. If the male is to invest years in foraging and hunting to feed the offspring of the female, he needs to know that his paternity of the child justifies his investment of time and effort. You have to have a male Cassio suspected of “topping” Desdemona. We were never convinced that Michelle Cassio, in spite of a fabulous performance by Joanna Horton, was a credible sexual partner for Desdemona. So we were never convinced that Othello was sent into a frenzy at the prospect. The theatre is far too tolerant of personal agendas interfering with plays. MINUS ONE STAR.
Book store: Tate Modern, 15 minutes after seeing the play, next door to. The display at the National Theatre on Friday was much larger … explain the theatre / play significance …
At he start and end, a character takes a SmartPhone picture of the bed. Neutral to mildly daft at the start. At the end, they have built up a tight and intense drama with bodies strewn everywhere. Then an arsehole (the Duke of Venice) takes two flash Smartphone photos of the carnage. Sniggers. Had I been playing my heart out as Othello, Desdemona or Emilia (and all three did), and lying there dead, I would have been incensed. Major magic moment totally broken for a fast cheap laugh. Then they try and recover the sense of tragedy with Cassio and Bianca. The Smartphone is such a crass and pathetic idea that I cannot envisage how it ever survived previews.
Look, if you are introducing SmartPhones, Strobes, Amplifiers and Mics to the Wanamaker, go back and put some seat backs in first. The Wanamaker ALWAYS loses spectators in the interval. Five today in the premium priced Lower Gallery. I listen to the chatter; extreme discomfort and backache causes it. The Jacobean spine was used to sitting on a bench for three hours. The 21st century one is not. We suffer for authenticity, if you’re throwing that away, then OK, I’ll accept it, but only if they give us decent seats as well! MINUS ONE STAR.
So … two stars, or how a director with talent but a political-sexual agenda can create a five star production with five star performances, then totally screw it up with shoehorned in issues and silly anachronisms. The artistic director should have intervened over that crass SmartPhone, if over nothing else.
BUT … the quality of mercy is not strained … Two stars would be far too harsh on such brilliant personal performances. No balaclavas. No thespians running around in battledress with toy guns. No cast of forty plus, as at the National Theatre … I’m putting one star back. PLUS ONE STAR.
There are hundreds of names in the programme, from Film Distribution Assistant to Theatre Finance assistant. A major part of this production was using acapella versions of pop songs by Lana de Rey, Katy Perry, Britney Spears and P.J. Harvey. Do they get a credit in the programme? None at all. Appalling. Every theatre skips these credits. I will keep mentioning it.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Emma Henderson, The Independent ****
Tom Wicker, The Stage ****
Sarah Hemming, Financial Times, ****
Dominic Maxwell, The Times ***
Lyn Gardner, Guardian ***
LINKS ON THIS BLOG
All’s Well That Ends Well, RSC 2013 (Diana)
All’s Well That Ends Well, RSC 2013 (Helena)
The Broken Heart, Wanamaker (Euphrania)