Think you know Othello? Think again. Director Hannah Kaye, one of the crew behind RIP, takes us through Shakespeare’s classic to directly challenge how we perceive the tragedy of the Moor of Venice in relation to sexism and violence towards females.
Kaye herself plays not only Emilia, but acts as a narrator, bringing in historic reviews, essays, and hard to swallow facts to lambast the general audience reaction of sympathising with Othello, sometimes going as far as blaming Desdemona. These interjections by Kaye are surprisingly hard-hitting and incredibly unsettling. Through this device it’s impossible not to find yourself completely rethinking the play beyond its themes of racism and betrayal, let alone be troubled at its portrayal of women.
At the show’s core is an abridged original play itself, the performance of which is solid. Rosalind Parker makes for a sturdy Iago, who is surprisingly cold as the manipulative villain. She masterfully turns the jealous and vengeful knave into something unnaturally steely and inert. Adrian Quinton as Othello is also a promising performer, juxtaposing the very loving nature of his character against a frightening rage.
Sonnie Beckett is the star of the show as Desdemona. Within this particular interpretation, she thrives in the role of the faithful, yet fated, wife. She plays her character with a very down to earth humanity. There’s nothing over-emotive or whimsical about her. Desdemona is just an every day woman – no graces, no airs, no melodrama – perfectly bolstering the points that Kaye is trying to get across.
Despite the set consisting of only a few curtains and old crates, Kaye makes excellent use of the stage, exploiting the awkward shape and cumbersome nooks of the Drayton Arms’ space. She injects flow and movement without it ever feeling restless, but ensures that nothing is ever still in this dark dissection. The use of clear lines of bright white salt, representing what we think we know about Othello, is also a very clever device. The more the play goes on, and the more Kaye frames everything that’s wrong with it, they smudge and scatter to the point of being completely indistinguishable.
The crowning jewel in both Kaye’s direction and Beckett’s performance, is Desdemona’s death. This is not the highly-romanticised and tragic scene we’ve come to know; it’s horrific and disturbing. It consists of around a five full minutes of hideous shrieking and kicking as Othello callously smothers his beloved. To say it was uncomfortable would be an understatement.
But there are a few faults. Why Iago is suddenly played as a transvestite/transsexual seems an interpretation of “I am not what I am” a step too bewildering, failing to add any new intelligent insight. But that’s not to say Parker didn’t handle herself well despite this. Also, there are a couple of stylistic missteps, such as an appearance of a Leonard Cohen track that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the play or its timbre.
But overall, this explosion of Othello is an intense and difficult reassessment of a cornerstone of British culture. Unpalatable and shocking, this is a dagger to the side of everything we thought we knew about the play; and it’s extraordinary.
Othello Syndrome runs at The Drayton Arms, London, SW5 0LG, until 28 September 2013. Tickets are £13 (concessions available). To book, visit www.thedraytontheatre.co.uk.