Venue: York Theatre Royal
Producer: Mark France
Putting on one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays takes a brave individual to say the least. Othello is so well known the majority of the audience will already have seen various other interpretations, (from Laurence Olivier to the more recent Lenny Henry) or at least have their own vision of the play. With the audience’s expectations set high, the director has a great opportunity to showcase their talent and distinguish their interpretation from the rest.
However, this is not something that Mark France does at all. This was a shame as the beginning of the play saw real potential, as the cast engaged well in an interpretive dance with rousing but intriguingly unconventional music; much like a prologue, it conferred the themes of Sex, Violence, and Betrayal which underpin Othello.
From this point forth however the performance was rather lacking. The stage was minimalist in its setting but this theme did not continue in any other aspect of the performance. A dominant feature of the staging was a series of light panels, alongside a large stage block also fitted with light paneling. Sadly the expectations engendered by such a set choice were not met in the execution of the performance. Mark France had a golden opportunity to inject some modernity into an otherwise era-confused production, but sadly missed the boat, when he only utilised the unusual set pieces at the end of the performance, too little, too late. Admittedly however, the end sequence which saw Desdemona and her maid, Emilia lying dead atop of an illuminated stage block added much pathos and a sense of ethereality with relation to the murdered women; making the audience feel a much stronger hatred towards their husbands Othello and Iago.
The costumes of the characters were inconsistent, while the members of court of Venice donned buttoned tail coats Iago and Roderigo wore jeans, and when the time came the guards rushed onto the stage in what looked like SWAT gear. This collage of costumes from different eras and levels of formality added nothing to France’s interpretation but confusion, which is also relevant with reference to Emilia’s costume change from blue denim to black denim jeans towards the end of the performance. While Katie Macintyre gave a strong performance as Desdemona embodying a rather more feisty version of herself than is conventional, a lot of what she gave to the character was undone through her choice of costume, a cheap flower patterned dress which in appearance made her appear childlike and unsophisticated rather than enhancing her role.
There were glimpses of originality, such as Brabantio’s “giving his blessing” to his daughter and Othello, which was borderline vitriolic. Though on paper his lines suggest he has warmed to the union Brabantio’s shines new light on the scene through delivering these lines which thick sarcasm. However, again this was another example of the potential France toyed with but failed to build on. The sarcastic approach which Brabantio harnessed so well was soon tarnished as Iago sloppily over used this technique as a fall back to add comic value to his lines. As many before me have said, “the play stands or falls by Iago” and sadly, this play The characterisation of Iago was by far the most disappointing element of France’s interpretation, as the actor Jamie Smelt didn’t quite realise the unfettered malice that defines Othello’s right hand man. He indulged too much in comedy and crowd pleasing, and didn’t hit the spot with Iago’s renowned soliloquies laced with vitriol, particularly the immortal aside ending with “I am not what I am.” Instead, Iago was portrayed as brutish and a bit of a thug, instead of the sleek and genius operator that Shakespeare crafted him to be.
Cassio gave an enjoyable performance, marking his character out by indulging in Iago’s crude humour and showing moments of convincing vulnerability, and moving away from the pretty boy image often conferred to Cassio. Unfortunately the same versatility cannot be attributed to Othello, played by Dermot Daly. True, his stage chemistry with Desdemona was beyond reproach, but sadly he didn’t manage to embody Othello’s dignity and commanding presence in the face of his persecutors at all, erring more on the side of comic foolery. Additionally, it is easy to agree with another critic who claimed he exhibited none of the “chilling menace” necessary for his character’s breakdown, as the seizure and murder scenes were wholly underwhelming. It is undeniable that the in the last couple of scenes the play gained momentum, but at this stage it was too late to compensate for what had gone previously. Ultimately the performance showed nothing new, rather than being creative, it was inconsistent. It alluded to a lack of confidence in France to take his own ideas and run with them.