Othello review: “portrait of a sociopath, chillingly realised”

By Cameron Yule

The difficulties of successfully staging a production are almost always unappreciated, particularly in reviewing, and so to criticise Bailey Theatre Company’s production of Othello for its brevity (excluding the interval, the show was only around 80 minutes long) would unfairly ignore the theatrical expediency of Joe Pape’s ‘editing’, designed to convey the key narratives and tensions at the heart of the play as concisely as possible. On these grounds, the production was a success: brevity did not come at the cost of drama, despite some initial reservations about the wisdom of cutting half the text. Where the play fell down however, was in some of the cast’s limited range of emotional expression, and what came across as a failure to fully capture the subtleties of Shakespeare’s language.

The production was a success: brevity did not come at the cost of drama.

The production’s dramatic centre relied heavily on a strong performance from John Broadhead as Iago, who brought out well the character’s Machiavellian fervour and lewd humour. Whether intentional or otherwise, Iago, not Othello, became the play’s focus, making it not so much a tragedy of love and jealousy as a character portrait of a sociopath, chillingly realised as the play closed with Broadhead laughing grotesquely, alone on stage. The only weakness of Broadhead’s interpretation were surprising moments of equivocation: when threatened by Othello, he seemed to show genuine fear, rather than feigning hurt as the text suggests. Broadhead relished his soliloquies, and – unlike many of his counterparts – showed an understanding of Shakespeare’s prosody, endowing his verse with a palpable rhythm and enjoying the freer, faster nature of his prose.

It was not so much a tragedy of love and jealousy as a character portrait of a sociopath.

It was disappointing that Broadhead’s portrayal of the embittered ensign could not be matched by Abbah Kel Jackson’s Othello, who lacked the Shakespearean nous of his counterpart, and could not as fully communicate Othello’s feelings of rage, despair, and his larger sense of nobility. Othello has some of the most extraordinary speeches of any Shakespearean character, rightly described as ‘word-music’ by Michael Billington, yet Jackson did not manage to portray the Moor’s wounded majesty to its full extent: his attempts to convey Othello’s solemnity only took the form of slow, measured speech, which robbed the lines of their vitality. However, Abbah Kel Jackson nonetheless displayed much potential.

The direction in the final scene seemed questionable as Jackson began his final speech (‘It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul’) to Desdemona (Henrie Allen) addressing the audience and not Desdemona, an action that seemed to typify the emotional disconnect in the production: there was not a convincing sense of Othello’s rent feelings. Jackson, to his credit, did at least bring out Othello’s authority in dressing down Cassio and questioning Iago, but there was no sense that it was his play, allowing Broadhead’s Iago to steal the attention.

The achievement of both the cast and crew in constructing this within three weeks is extremely impressive.

There were some august supporting performances, notably Ginny Leigh as Lodovico (also incorporating lines from the Duke of Venice) and Richard Dyer as Rodorigo, who articulated well his character’s sense of denied sexuality and whose realisation of his deception by Iago represented a quietly tragic subplot. Leigh was particularly good in representing an authority and command that had otherwise been subverted throughout the play. The production’s cuts though could not help but demote the play’s female characters – at one point it seemed that Emilia (Lydia Cook) would hardly speak a line. Equally, the cuts made Othello’s turn against Desdemona seem far too sudden, and perhaps a foregrounding of this pivotal relationship would have resulted in the play having a more potent emotional edge. And although a personal quibble, the excision of Iago’s final lines, ‘Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:/From this time forth I never will speak word’, seemed a terrible oversight given the play’s preoccupation with the effects and power of words.

Overall, the production’s compactness leant it the necessary intensity to be engaging and enjoyable – an intensity which may well have been lost in a longer production, and the achievement of both the cast and crew in constructing this within three weeks is extremely impressive. Broadhead’s turn as Iago certainly stole the show, but this is Othello’s play, and that dramatic absence prevented the production from reaching its ultimate potential.

Photograph: Indi Samarajiva via Creative Commons

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