By Simon Fearn
For those of you still in the grip of Shakespeare fever at the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, Aidan’s College Theatre’s production of Othello will come as welcome news. Aside from being one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays, ACT’s thoughtful, modern adaptation looks set to do the great tragedy justice.
‘In a modern context, the stuff at the centre of Othello, jealousy and love, are things that everyone can relate to on a daily basis,’ explains director Becky Wilson, ‘more than the debates about being a king in Hamlet or Macbeth.’ Wilson is looking to highlight the relevance of Othello through her modern adaptation, which will also explore the often peripheralized ‘abusive relationship’ between Iago and Emilia, and will look to make sure Desdemona is ‘more fiery than she would initially come across. She doesn’t let Othello get away with things’ (Erin Lawrence, Desdemona).
Wesley Milligan will be taking on the role of Othello, and he aims to remind the audience that ‘Othello is not just a savage Moor, he’s actually quite noble.’ ‘His final speech is his desperate cry for people to remember how he used to be,’ Wilson adds. ‘In the final few lines he regains his posture. He dies the man he was at the start.’ Jake Hathaway, who plays Cassio, a character obsessed by his reputation, describes how Othello always believes he is doing the honourable thing. ‘Iago convinced him that this is the noble thing to do,’ he says. ‘He never sees himself as anything other than noble in a sense.’
Adam Simpson describes Iago as ‘the perfect actor’, and in rehearsal he masters the art of playing innocent after engineering Cassio’s dismissal, before letting the act drop with malicious laughter in his following soliloquy. ‘Within one sentence, he’ll have one word that sticks in that person’s head and haunts them,’ explains Simpson. ‘With Brabantia it’s “topped”, “topped” by a barbary horse, and those words wring in her ears.’ Simpson and Milligan have also worked to give Othello and Iago a history to try and explain the huge amount of trust Othello places in his ensign. ‘We did a whole backstory,’ Milligan tells me. ‘I trust him implicitly, he’s my right hand man. That’s why when he does eventually betray me I’m so shocked. He’s the one person I’m willing to allow to see me vulnerable, aside from perhaps Desdemona.’
In ACT’s version, Iago and Emilia’s relationship is also a central theme, and the modern setting allows them to interpret Iago’s domestic abuse ‘very differently to how it was originally written,’ according to Angharad Phillips. Her relationship is never in a good place with Iago from the start,’ Phillips expands. ‘Deep down she does love him, and all she wants is one good evening where they don’t argue and he’s not horrible to her.’ Unfortunately for Iago, however, Emilia proves to be his Achilles heel. ‘What lets him down ultimately is that the one person he doesn’t act around is Emilia,’ explains Simpson, ‘and she’s the one that makes it appear to everyone that he’s actually killed Desdemona.’
Wilson and her team have clearly thought carefully about the play, with one pivotal scene taking ‘a long time and a seminar with a Shakespeare tutor.’ Their production promises an unconventional take on the great tragedy. ‘As an audience member, you are actively involved in watching these things unfold,’ Wilson concludes. ‘Iago invites you into plotting with him, and you’re almost seduced into being on the side of Iago.’ The Assembly Rooms is the place to be this Thursday to get a taste of Adam Simpson’s seductive powers.
Photograph: Ellen Orange
Othello will run from Thur 5th to Sat 7th May at The Assembly Rooms Theatre. Book your tickets here.