OTHELLO at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Othello is beautifully acted and full of fresh invention.  Right from the start Othello’s ‘otherness’ is seen to be more significant than a mere difference in skin colour. Director Richard Twyman has drawn on the expertise of creative adviser Abdul-Rehman Malik to give us an Othello who is first and foremost a Muslim, even though the crucifix he wears might suggest otherwise.  This works well dramatically and serves to highlight the play’s contemporary relevance.  These references to religious and cultural difference are not overplayed – indeed, they are not perhaps the most striking feature of this interpretation. Twyman has eschewed the formality and grandeur that is so often seen in productions of Othello. The cast wear casual or smart-casual modern dress, and there is little in their appearance to emphasise differences in social status. Behaviour, too, is generally relaxed and informal; there is no doffing of hats or curtseying.  The text is delivered in a pacey, contemporary style, and there are times when lines that might have been delivered with solemn dignity are instead given a comic touch. All this generates a welcome propulsive energy that avoids the ponderousness that can bedevil productions of this play, but inevitably there is a price to pay. Much of the lyrical beauty of the language, the ‘Othello music’, is lost, and we are simply not given time to dwell on the poetry.

However, in recompense, there is an entirely convincing naturalness to the performances that is very refreshing.  This is particularly true of Norah Lopez Holden’s delightful portrayal of Desdemona.  This role has so often been interpreted as one of passive stoicism, a portrait of quiet modesty and whiter-than-white virtue; but here we see a flesh-and-blood young woman on her honeymoon, brim full of joyous optimism. Her youthful passion is to the fore as she leaps into the arms of her husband, who gleefully slings her over his shoulder to carry her off to bed.  This he does easily, as actor Abraham Popoola’s six-foot five-inch frame brings considerable physical presence to the central role. There are some telling moments when Othello’s and Desdemona’s unselfconscious physicality is seen to discomfit other characters. Popoola is especially effective when showing Othello’s mental disintegration; we see a fine and honourable man reduced to inarticulate roars of despair and rage.  Othello is a highly experienced, battle-hardened general, but we do not see him in uniform. Here the emphasis is much more upon his life as a newly married man caught up in a social world that he does not really know or understand. His naïve idealism is founded upon a soldier’s notions of honour, and he has no experience of the rumour-mongering, hypocrisy and double-dealing that can lie beneath the surface of ‘polite’ yet corrupt civilian society.

Othello’s inexperience is exploited by Mark Lockyer’s infinitely cynical, nihilistic Iago, a man who will invent a reason for a grudge where there is none. Lockyer brilliantly conveys Iago’s ability to think on his feet, his busy fingers conjuring new plots out of thin air. He addresses the audience directly, cheekily daring us to admire his deviousness with a knowing smile. This is a highly persuasive Iago whose amorality is repellent, but whose personality is often dangerously amusing. Broader comedy is delivered by his dim sidekick the hapless Roderigo, played by Brian Lonsdale as a clownish dupe whose attempt at disguising himself in beard and turban is as hopeless as his desire for Desdemona.

Piers Hampton is a splendid Cassio. I particularly liked his relaxed relationship with Desdemona; we see close friends whose intimacy never oversteps the bounds of propriety. Hampton portrays Cassio as every bit the loyal and responsible lieutenant when sober, but someone who is disastrously unstable when he’s had one too many to drink. He perfectly captures how drunkenness can switch in a trice from giggling merriment to uncontrolled violence.

One striking illustration of the way this production has downplayed the formalities of social hierarchy is seen in Desdemona’s intimate relationship with Emilia.  They are portrayed as being near equals, rather than a mistress and her maid.  Their joint rendition of a radically re-imagined ‘Willow’ song may be very far from traditional, but it is an entirely convincing depiction of troubled friends finding consolation in song and dance.  The closeness of their relationship gives added emotional weight to Emilia’s spirited defence of Desdemona; she is fighting for a much-loved friend. Katy Stephens is a feisty, vigorous Emilia; her condemnation of Iago in the final moments of the play is thrillingly powerful.

Some features of the design may not be to everyone’s taste.  I found the use of flickering neon light distracting, as was a dangling microphone that was employed somewhat randomly during some speeches. But overall this is a fine production with splendid performances in all the major roles. I greatly enjoyed its invigoratingly contemporary approach to this great play. Highly recommended.  ★★★★☆    Mike Whitton   22nd February 2017


Photo Credit: The Other Richard