Saturday 23 March 2019

Othello @ The Union Theatre

Othello @ The Union Theatre

A heady incense perfumes the air and the drama in this production of Othello at the Union Theatre that ends their 'Enemies Of The People' season. Directed by Phil Willmott, the plot is transported to the British Raj for an inventive take on Shakespeare's play.

This year marks the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in which British and Indian officers fired upon a large group of unarmed civilians. Many died in what is considered one of the worst atrocities in British colonialism, as well as the rise in Indian nationalism. How must it have felt, as an Indian soldier, to fire upon their fellow countrymen?

Willmott attempts to infuse his Othello with that same sense of conflict. Here, the titular Moor (Matthew Wade) is an Indian General under the rule of an English Duke; his friend Cassio (Jerome Dowling) is an English army chaplain; and Iago (Rikki Lawton) is a lower-class soldier assigned to Othello but jealous of his position and favouring of Cassio.

These elements, while certainly intriguing, never quite fuse with the drama. There are a handful of tweaks to the script, but mostly the concept is set dressing - albeit well done - that provides the sights, sounds and smells of India. There are loose thematic connections between the play and the British Raj, but Othello is more conflicted about Desdemona than his position, while Iago's motives remain ambiguous. There are contradictions too: Othello is implied to not be a Christian, but (as per the source material) he demands Desdemona pray to God for forgiveness. Perhaps he mocks her, but this doesn't appear to be the case.

Yet, although Willmott is arguably a slave to his design, the play itself still bristles with tension. It is as compelling as ever, with great central performances. Wade's Othello begins calm, clear and dignified, but torment turns him animalistic. As Iago, Lawton is a cheeky chap full of banter, manipulating others with drink and drugs. He is crude yet terrorising, a fool with an unpredictable dark side that's violent and misogynistic. Elsewhere, Dowling is a gallant Cassio and Carlotta De Gregori is a meek feminine foil as Desdemona. All speak the verse with welcome clarity.

The staging too has clarity, for the most part - a few too many moments are directed to the back of the stage. There's also a lack of emotional power to the ending that feels a little too frenzied. Yet this Othello remains a solid, lucid production with a sprinkling of extra flavour that doesn't quite mix.


Watch: Othello runs at the Union Theatre until 6th April.

Photos: Scott Rylander