A few Sundays ago, I attended Ellen McDougall’s production of Othello at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse. Situated next to and as part of the internationally known Shakespeare’s Globe, the playhouse is immediately far more intimate and claustrophobic than any open aired theatre. With seats practically on top of each other and feet knocking backs and heads, it is possibly an accurate representation of what a busy theatre might have been like back in Shakespeare’s day, before armrests were considered necessary and people took what space they could to see the playwright's work.
Cameras flash from the audience, capturing the Elizabethan facade at the back of the stage and the mattress, covered in blood, which rests in the centre of the stage, foreshadowing the tragedy we are about to witness. As musicians file on above the stage the phones disappear and the stage is lit only by candlelight. The six candelabras lower to the stage where the dozen or so candles on each are extinguished by actors dressed in plain white dress shirts, familiar to many thanks to Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice. As the stage and audience are plunged into darkness, the singers begin a haunting acappella rendition of Lana Del Rey’s 2011 song, Video Games. It is surreal. To be surrounded by Elizabethan dress and facades, Renaissance drawings of little cherubs, candlelight and hear Lana Del Rey’s lyrics performed.
Aside from the song choice, which we will realise later is not a one off introductory song but a light motif, the only other modern aspect to the play is the flash of an iPhone camera once all the candles have been snuffed out. It is not, thankfully, an audience member attempting to sneak in one last photo before the play begins proper. The picture is taken by a player on the stage and the flash illuminates several prone bodies, not there moments ago, lying on the bloodied mattress. It is a prophecy of what is to come and, by the time the song has finished and the stage has been illuminated again, the bodies and blood have disappeared, the audience entering Venice in a time of innocence, before any bloodshed.
Knowing only four things about Shakespeare’s Othello before going to see the play, I was not sure if I would successfully follow it or if I would leave the theatre without a clue as to what I had just watched. I was hopeful that the four things I did know though would aid me slightly in my understanding.
1. The lead male is black
2. There is a very important handkerchief
3. Iago is the malcontent
4. Someone is falsely accused of adultery
In a way, I wasn’t wrong. Immediately, the four things I knew allowed me to figure out that Othello was not present in the first scene because everyone on stage was white. I was also able to understand some of Iago’s incentive for whatever he would do as the malcontent, and guess that it would be he who would make up the adultery.
As the play continued we met the rest of the ensemble. Othello, black as expected, and everyone else white except for a few unnamed characters and Desdemona's servant and Iago’s wife, Emilia. We also met Michelle Cassio, who I realised is a male in the original play, by the name of Michael Cassio. It was a pretty easy realisation once I figured Shakespeare wasn’t progressive enough to include both a black man and blatant homosexuality in any of his plays. The changing of Cassio’s gender had several consequences. Iago feeling passed over for the role of Lieutenant now had the extra aspect that a woman had been chosen over him. Othello’s anger at Desdemona for allegedly cheating on him now had the extra aspect that a woman had been chosen over him. Really, it placed a spotlight on the common misogyny in Shakespeare’s plays and magnified it ten fold. It also provided some social commentary on today’s society, Cassio’s speech about reputation following Othello stripping her of her military role now bearing references to the rape culture of today and the hatred towards Cassio’s and Bianca’s union reflecting the often reported attacks on the LGBT+ community. This change, along with the modernisation of some of the language (serving to make the humour of Shakespeare’s time more understandable to a post-millennial audience) only improved the play in my opinion, (an opinion which may not be particularly valued because this was the first production I have ever seen) and demonstrates McDougall’s excellent directorial style without losing the fundamental Shakespeare within the play.
The acting as well was brilliant. Kurt Egyiawan’s Othello was the focus whenever he was on stage, so difficult was it to look away from him. Even his accidental smashing of part of the set was perfectly timed and only helped to add to the tension. Sam Spruell meanwhile played Iago so well that, at times, it was impossible to believe that moments ago he had been badmouthing Othello because now he was being only the very best companion. Natalie Klamar (Desdemona), Thalissa Teixeira (Emilia), Nadia Albina (Bianca) and Joanna Horton (Cassio) carried the play when there was no rising tension or active movement, giving evocative performances and stirring the audience at the end when the men destroy any hope of peace and the audience is left with three dead bodies and only Bianca and Cassio to destroy the effects of the patriarchy in the animalistic ripping of the bloodied bed sheets.
It was this choice (in addition to the Lana Del Rey) which started so much debate as we left the play. To have two women (one who is originally a male) light and extinguish the final candle and to tear up the bed Desdemona, Emilia and Othello die on was thought provoking. Were they shredding the patriarchy and showing that women do have the strength to prevail in an all male world? Were they merely angry and acting without thought, attempting to remove all traces of the murders and suicide so they can forget and move on? Were they forging a path through the corruption and deceit in order to start afresh? Were they trying to hide the deeds done so no one could learn from them? There were many different opinions and all were reasonable. Personally, I felt Cassio and Bianca were obviously angry, at the men, at the deceit, at their friends’ deaths and were attempting to destroy what the bed represented; it had started as a place of love, become a platform for the Duke to speak on and then become the place where Othello would murder his wife. It was a symbol for the corruption and patriarchy and tragedy and the women wanted to get rid of it. Such a thing has no place in the world of today and yet (just like the Duke’s casual photo of the dead bodies at the end of the play) is still not uncommon. In shredding the sheets, this is what I feel McDougall was trying to portray. Of course none of us can be sure which one of us, if any, were right but that is also part of it; ambiguity encourages debate and thought into the text and how it can be perceived in the context of production and reception.
Overall, I felt I left the playhouse with a comprehensive understanding of Othello and its characters. Whilst it cannot beat King Lear for my favourite Shakespeare play, it is definitely up there. Iago’s unconstrained loathing for Othello juxtaposed against Desdemona's absolute love for Othello; the tragedy of deception succeeding; the scene of revelry when Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl fails to drown out the cries of happiness, love and Cassio being forced to drink from a bottle positioned over Iago’s ridiculous cod piece; the lighting which told day from night and danger from happiness and travel from home; Video Games repeated, always serving a different meaning, transitioning from love and security to hatred and fear - all of these things will stick with me and were arguably what made the play so excellent.