Othello, Waterloo East Theatre - Review

Othello is one of those plays that has an increasing resonance when you’re an adult, as the themes of jealousy, fidelity and assessing the sincerity of relationships feature at some point or other in our lives.

Director Pamela Schermann has elected to jettison the overt military overtones of the original play and instead relocate the story to the Square Mile in present day London. Inspired by the tragic event of an intern who died after working 72 hours straight, and the volatility of the stock markets spilling over to those working there, Schermann has through some judicious editing, deftly made the Moor a bastion of the City of London.

In the spirit of economic efficiency, the text has been streamlined so that only five characters are physically present on stage, and has a running time of approximately 90 minutes with no detriment to the overall story. Where necessary, other characters such as Bianca can be heard as a Skype call, reflecting today’s reliance on digital communications.

I was most impressed with the way that Schermann thought outside the box with depicting familiar scenes and speeches, such as have recordings of the actors played while they’re present on stage, as if to suggest they are their unspoken thoughts. Techniques such as these lent this production a cinematic quality and shows that Schermann has the same capacity for inventiveness as esteemed director Julie Taymor.

Any production of Othello has to have a class act as Iago, the master manipulator. Without a solid actor in the role, the suspension of disbelief for the play’s chain of events falls like a house of cards. Thankfully, Trevor Murphy is up to the task, often delivering the oft-quoted speeches in unexpected, but memorable ways. At times his smirks and mischievous glare channels the late Leonard Rossiter, whose comic delivery could switch at the drop of a hat with intensity and menace.

When we first see Murphy, he is sleeping on his desk, denoting the near-24 hour work culture in the City. The rest of the play takes place in various private offices in the same building, alluding to the claustrophobic, hemmed-in existence of 'worker bees' in financial firms.

Fresh from directing the acclaimed Under The Blue Sky recently at Drayton Theatre, Denholm Spurr plays Cassio with the requisite youthful zest and earnest to a fault.

As his mentor, Othello (James Barnes) prowls like a panther-like on stage, conveying so much about his mood non-verbally with his body language. When Iago sets Othello’s doubts in motion, we see the seams of serenity unravel in his eyes and the palpable coolness at the messenger who’s robbed him of his peace.

Interestingly Charlie Blackwood, who plays Desdemona, appeared in the National Theatre’s production of Timon of Athens in 2012, which was also transposed to the world of the rich elite. When we’re first introduced to her in Othello, she’s every bit Barnes’ equal, bearing the wit and confidence of Emma Thompson’s ‘Beatrice’ in Much Ado About Nothing. To quote Iago when he talks to Cassio about Desdemona: “Our general’s wife is now the general.”

Following Othello ‘striking’ her, Blackwood does a fine job of visibly altering her posture and demeanour, metamorphosing into a shell of the confident woman she was before. It’s no secret that Desdemona eventually dies by Othello’s hand, but the fight that Blackwood as Desdemona puts up at the end, reinforces how the act of killing someone is not like the movies. It takes a lot of time, effort and force of will to do so, with ample opportunities to stop before it is too late. Tragic for the victim of the violence and doubly-damning for the perpetrator who has opportunity to stop time and time again. In any case, Blackwood rose up to the challenge of this physically demanding role and pulled it off admirably.

Ella Duncan who plays Iago’s wife Emilia. is ever-present, but seldom talks in the early part of the play. However, as Desdemona’s confidence wanes, Duncan’s Emilia finds her voice and we see that given the right circumstances, she (like any woman) can be every bit as opinionated and confident as the people around her.

Anyone who is au fait with the world of stock markets knows that decisions and facts are often based on 99% hearsay. If a particular commodity or listed company is ‘not doing well’, usually it’s because of some news that has disquieted investors and opinion becomes ‘fact’. By equating the behaviour in the world of commerce with domestic relationships, Schermann has cemented her name as a lateral thinker and a talent to watch.

With some plays, you can appreciate that they are good productions, but whether their success is due to the writing or direction can be a grey area. Othello has always been a good play, but what Schermann has brought to this production is clearly evident – a fresh vision to a familiar tale, with fresh insights to boot.

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