Despite the fact that it's 2015, there's still much debate and handwringing about cross-gender casting in Shakespeare. It prompts questions like, 'does it have a social purpose?', 'What's the point?' And, when it involves female actors, 'is this just an excuse for them to play great classical roles?'
The cast provide a convincing portrayal of masculinity without ever feeling the need to reach into The Big Bag of Social Stereotypes.
Ultimately, the main concern should be whether these productions are any good. And in the case of Smooth Faced Gentlemen's all-female Othello, the answer's yes. Though heavily cut, this is a solidly performed and directed take on the Bard's testosterone-laden study of betrayal, revenge and all-consuming sexual jealousy.
Simply staged, with a collection of wooden-framed venetian blinds on castors, evoking the play's different settings, the Cuban Missile Crisis provides its context. A time which saw the USA and Russia in a stand-off which took the world to the brink of nuclear war. So it makes sense as a backdrop to a story that's heavy with secrecy, anger, tension and unease. And, when all these barely contained emotions eventually erupt, there's no squeamishness: the portrayal of violence, particularly in the later scenes, is visceral.
The cast provide a convincing portrayal of masculinity without ever feeling the need to reach into The Big Bag of Social Stereotypes. And, although you're aware of their gender, there's no sense of it 'getting in the way' or detracting from your enjoyment. What the casting does do is draw attention to men's physicality, and the way that they occupy space and demonstrate status. An example of this is finding yourself noticing that, in the scene when Barbantio, Othello's reluctant father-in-law, confronts him the higher ranking officers are cheerfully sitting with their legs akimbo.
In the early scenes Anita-Joy Uwejah invests Othello with humour and easy charm. And later on she’s compelling as she makes the transition from carefree lover to tormented, fury-fuelled wretch - though it’s a transformation which happens indecently quickly after Iago injects his first dose of thought poison. (Possibly a victim of the substantial cuts.) Helen Coles’ Desdemona, too, is spirited and imbued with strength and intelligence. She's confident and vocal, even in the face of her husband's wrath. Uwejah and Coles are convincing as the ill-fated lovers, maintaining a real chemistry and tenderness between them.
The standout, though, is Ashlea Kaye’s Iago, Othello’s nemesis. He's truculent, marinaded in spite and far from a stock villain. It's clear that he relishes the pain and confusion he's causing, and his satisfaction when things are going his way is obvious. I was disappointed by the lack of connection between him and his wife Emilia; more could have been done here. That said, this is a bold, energetic and enjoyable interpretation.