“And what’s he then that says I play the villain?”
Early February and I’m already on my second Othello of the year. Not only that, it’s the second one to both modernise it and condense the play down to well under two hours. But where Frantic Assembly moved the action in the violence of northern gang-life, Time Zone Theatre relocate it to the cut and thrust of corporate office politics and director Pamela Schermann goes even further in slimming the cast down to five bodies (plus Bianca’s voice Skyping in).
It’s a bold reimagining – especially in a venue as soaked in archaeological significance as the Rose, Bankside – but one that pays off. Stripped off pretty much every sub-plot, the story becomes one of cut-throat careerism, the promotion that Iago is passed over for thus a much more recognisable one and represented simply but effectively by the relative plushness of an executive office chair (astute design from Gillian Stevenson) in which people will kill to sit.
This production is dominated by Trevor Murphy’s sharply-suited Iago and all of his compelling charisma (was ever a strawberry eaten so malevolently?). Whether in pointed voiceover, Machiavellian (or should that be Francis Urquhart-ian) asides or the simmering contempt with which he deals with the situation around him, he’s an irresistible force of nature manipulating everyone and everything to his will – just watch how he manoeuvres Othello out of that chair (and himself into it) at a crucial moment.
James Barnes’ Othello is a little pallid by comparison, not quite magisterial enough in his earlier moments but Samantha Lock’s Desdemona is a thrillingly self-possessed equal in the office and they share a rather lovely chemistry. Ella Duncan’s sparky Emilia also makes her mark alongside Denholm Spurr’s Cassio in this tightly compacted company, all refining their characters to fit into this modern business world yet still paying attention to the Shakespearean poetry.
There’s great work creatively too, especially given the limitations of the space. Pushing one scene outside the expected boundaries is hugely effective and the ominous drips of Philip Matejtschuk’s sound encourage a darkening mood. But I really loved what Petr Vocka’s lighting achieved in really segmenting the production between exterior action and interior thought and whilst jealousy may be a green-eyed monster, it’s the red heat of anger that illuminates the climax, again to great effect.
An adroit adaptation that is well worth suffering the cold for (I’d definitely recommend taking one of the proffered blankets, and I was at a matinee!).