The need for ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’ traditionally associated with an appreciation of Shakespeare’s Othello reaches a new level necessity in director Phil Willmott’s attempt to reinvent this classic at the Union Theatre.
Both the inspiration and the cast fail to convince.
Commemorating the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the setting is moved from Venice and Cyprus to the Punjab in the days of the Raj. Othello (Matthew Wade), no longer the Moor, is an Indian officer recruit who along with Cassio (Jerome Dowling), now an army chaplain, trained at Sandhurst, where they met the beautiful débutante Desdemona (Carlotta De Gregori) and became friends. Fast-tracked to the rank of general, Othello is sent to Amritsar, which is under the jurisdiction of Desdemona’s father, the Duke (Jeremy Todd). She and Othello secretly marry and he requests that Cassio be made his lieutenant. Upon his arrival he enters into a relationship with Bianca (Megan Grech), who might be politely described as a courtesan or otherwise as the local prostitute. Iago (Rikki Lawton) is Othello’s orderly, whose social status prohibits his rise to officer rank, but who nevertheless holds a powerful grudge against Othello for promoting Cassio. This engenders resentfulness and envy in him. Innocently assisted by his wife, Emilia (Claire Lloyd), Iago plots the demise of both men while being pestered by Roderigo (Maximilian Marston) who has amorous designs on Desdemona. In this reduced cast, Montano (Kit Carson), Othello’s predecessor, survives the chop.
The colonial setting is enchantingly created by Justin Williams & Jonny Rust
and beautifully lit by Zoe Burnham, though for those not familiar with the play the prolonged use of a single torch in the Roderigo/Cassio fight scene might leave some in the dark. Sound designer Julian Star creates evocative background sounds although there were times when the dialogue would have benefitted from a toned down chorus of birds and crickets.
The production is a noble effort that unfortunately raises more questions than it answers. It would present even a far more accomplished cast with an insurmountable task. The text is heavily edited and there are the inevitable, irritating changes to make it consistent with the new setting, though why a Judaean should be chosen to replace the ‘base Indian’ remains a mystery.
Also worth pondering over is why Cassio has been turned into an army chaplain. Whilst it might lend credence to the unnecessary addition of a hymn-singing scene, it doesn’t make sense elsewhere. Even given the propensity of clergy for sexual misconduct, it is highly unlikely he would have been seen cavorting in the streets with a strumpet and equally unlikely that he would be appointed either as Othello’s lieutenant or later to the office of commander, once Othello was stripped of the position. Similarly in this revised plot, if Iago is insufficiently trained or too lowly to be appointed to the rank of officer why is he so put out by Cassio’s appointment? He must at least be in with an initial chance to make his subsequent peevishness credible.
Othello is newly out of officer training and that is certainly the impression that Wade gives. The lifetime of military exploits and tales of extraordinary encounters that so bedazzled Desdemona, that won her heart along with the minds of those who heard him, are glossed over in his great speech in Act 1. This creates a significant hole in the credibility of how they came to be together and reduces his status and power. This lack of dominating authority also diminishes the incredulity that should accompany how so great a man could be so easily duped and weakens the impact of his ultimate demise.
With Othello as an easy target, even the casual, working-class approach that Lawton adopts to Iago has its effect. His plots come trippingly off the tongue as though he has done all this before. The great soliloquies that should engage the audience in his scheming and in which he ponders the schemes he will hatch are sent out into the air or spoken into a mirror as though everyday occurrences. There is little of the menacing ‘motiveless malignity’ traditionally associated with the character as his machinations unfold.
There is always a case for seeing Shakespeare in a new setting and a different light. It can work brilliantly on occasions, as when the National Theatre put Henry V into the desert, just as Bush and Blair entered into the Iraq conflict. Alas, on this occasion, both the inspiration and the cast fail to convince.