Thursday, 5 March 2009

Othello - Liverpool Playhouse

Othello by William Shakespeare
Director: Kathryn Hunter
Reviewer: Kate Cotterell

Of all the Shakespeare I’ve been to see this year, and that has been an unusually large amount, the RSC’s touring production of Othello is by far the most traditional I’ve encountered.

At 3 and a half hours, including interval, it’s an epic production that promises much in its opening scenes which are well devised and directed with some wonderful ensemble singing that sets the tone for the piece. The initial appearance of Othello and Desdemonda as partners and lovers, wrapped up in each other and oblivious to the world, is a great image – and the moment when Othello gives his new bride the handkerchief, which plays such a large part in the plot, is both symbolic and foreboding.

The set is a fantastic construction which splits in two to become, in turn, a bridge, a ship, a gateway and part of the village in Cyprus where the action ends up. The set is striking and beautifully created to fit in with the art deco, 1920’s visual style of the piece and is, certainly in the first part of the piece, well used to create dramatic landscapes and a sense of movement and passage of time. Yet after Iago’s plan comes to fruition and Othello’s jealousy begins to drive him mad the set and the staging becomes annoyingly static. This is, perhaps, a conscious decision on the director’s part in order to draw our focus to the tragic events unfolding, but for me it didn’t quite work.

Othello is played as the classic tragic hero, yet Patrice Naiambana’s vocal delivery was not always as sharp as it could have been and the flow and tempo of the speeches often left me cold. As Othello’s jealousy progressed the character seemed to revert into a child like state, flitting from moments of hysteria to deep melancholy and with plenty of tears yet I felt little for Othello and the position he’d got himself into. It was, for me, the performance of Natalia Tena as Desdemona that really brought the play to life. Her portrayal of the character as playful, joyful and mischievous in the first part of the piece convinced me that any man could fall in love with her and the chemistry between her and all of the other actors on stage had a sincere authenticity that made her a pleasure to watch.

Other stand out performances came from Alex Hassell as the charming and faithful Michael Cassio (his song at the beginning of act two is haunting and beautiful) and Tamzin Griffin as Emilia who, until the final act when it all becomes a little melodramatic, presents a masterclass in the art of small gestures and minute changes in facial expression that tell whole stories in single moments. Her relationship with her husband Iago, played skilfully and with more humour than usual, by Michael Gould, is very engaging and is, of course, in sharp contrast with the adoration of Othello and Desdemona.

Watching the piece with the eyes of a modern audience it’s clear that there are flaws - the honesty of ‘Honest Iago’ is overplayed by the language (the sheer amount of times he is referred to as Honest Iago is immense) and the transformation of Othello from doting husband to murdering green-eyed monster happens much too quickly. It was also interesting to see that the RSC had chosen to ‘black-up’ the Clown character in order to give the piece a more racial slant – the appearance (and reappearance throughout) of the toy gollywog was also of note, yet I wasn’t sure what to do with this as an audience member – it served only to make me feel uncomfortable, which was perhaps its purpose.

Overall, I enjoyed the piece - the style and texture of the set and costume – from Old Italy to the heats of Cyprus, with art deco thrown in for good measure - the performance; particularly of the female actors, and the live percussion and string instruments and choral singing which brought the piece together throughout.

Photos: Simon Annand
Othello runs at the Liverpool Playhouse until Sat 7th March 2009
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