There are times when a production comes along that is a powerful reminder of the beauty and eloquence of Shakespeare’s writing, his clarity of exposition and ingenuity of plot, even though many were far from original. MFA students from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, under the evidently clear, focussed and purposeful direction of Scott Ellis, have captured such a moment in their moving performance of
Deeply moving and beautifully spoken.
Shakespeare provides actors with some of the finest prose and verse in the English language and this production clearly makes their delivery a priority. Nothing in this production detracts from the precision with which the lines flow so tellingly. There has been some minimal and judicious editing of the text, but the play does not suffer any harm as a consequence; indeed it intensifies the essential action.
The point has often been made that much current American pronunciation is more akin to Shakespeare’s speech than that of present-day and especially southern English. That all the actors in this production are from the USA adds another interesting dimension to this production. The play is full of conversational dialogue and the effortless delivery of lines and clarity of enunciation achieved by the cast give an everyday reality to the exchanges. For once, we have a production devoid of mumbling, dropped consonants and slurring.
For the men in the army, costumes are simple, present-day military. Others wear civvy street clothes, while the ladies have contemporary outfits to match. Versatile bench/shelf structures adapt easily to create settings and locations, aided by the arrival of large wooden boxes, initially appearing as crates of luggage and cargo, unloaded from the fleet of ships newly arrived from Venice to Cyprus. The production department has shown great restraint and practicality in this respect, adding just vertical corrugated sheets and wire to form a backdrop which, with the costumes, reminds us that we are in a war zone. The simplicity of this environment allows for the language to reign supreme.
While the focus of the plot is the demise of Othello (CJ Stewart) it is Iago (Andrew Katzman) who engineers his fall. Katzman takes control from the outset and although the villain he oozes charm. It is no wonder that Othello constantly refers to him as ‘honest’, for that is how he appears. He also closely engages the audience in his malignity. His perfectly enunciated lines beguilingly reveal the mischievous workings of his mind as he conjures up the developments of his scheming and explains how all will work to achieve the Moor’s downfall. His likeability, his pretending to be the good guy showing ‘out a flag and sign of love’, give his words frightening credibility. ‘And what’s he then that says I play the villain?....’ was one of several great soliloquies that sent shivers down the spine.
All characters are drawn-in to further his nefarious ends. Gwydion Calder plays a naive, trusting and often humorous Roderigo who keeps popping up with increasing frustration that Iago is draining him of money but bringing him no closer to Desdemona (Gala Lok), with whom he is in love. He is a disposable asset who brutally falls victim to Iago’s grand scheme. David Magadan perfectly captures the devotion of Cassio towards Othello and the shame he feels following the drunken brawl, while taking in every word that Iago utters. Light relief in the midst of all this is provided by probably the wildest interpretation ever given to Bianca. Traditionally, as implied in the script, a strumpet whom Cassio espouses, Salvatore J Donzella puts on a loud southern drawl and struts around looking like an off-stage drag queen, before donning a suit and tie to double up as Lodovico. Also doubling up, Kerstin Becker plays an anguished and ultimately grieving Brabantio as well as an Officer. Kevin O’Keefe, meanwhile, plays Montano, the island’s former governor and also a Senator with the dignity befitting their offices.
Stewart has the difficulty task of taking Othello from the position of admired soldier and accomplished general, whose exploits wooed Desdemona and captivated the senate to the broken man, ‘wrought/ Perplex'd in the extreme’. The eloquence with which he delivers his first major speech confirms his status and yet his humanity abounds in the joyous scenes he shares with Lok as devoted, fun-loving newlyweds. Slowly the ‘green-eyed monster’ takes over and both carefully manage the painful destruction that Iago has inflicted on them. Lok draws us into her suffering as the dream of wedded bliss erodes while Stewart’s blood boils. It is left to the hoodwinked Emilia (Marilyn Wallace), Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid to finally expose the course of his villainy. Wallace plays her part with dutiful humility till the very end, when she summons up a breathtaking tirade against Iago and Othello that has nothing less than a huge wow factor attached to it.
It’s a pity this work will not reach wider audiences. Many of the cast return to the USA at the end of this academic year. With some fine tuning this Othello would certainly go from strength to strength given the calibre of the cast. It’s a deeply moving and beautifully spoken production that students studying the text would find would find invaluable and audiences leave thoroughly impressed.