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The Lion and Unicorn theatre is an intimate setting for the domestic turmoil of Othello; a small stage situated above a pub. Upon entering the space of this theatre, you can hear a recording of water running in the background, dripping unsettlingly, creating an atmosphere of unease. This recording foreshadows the horrific outbursts of violence at the end of Othello – it surely intimates the blood spilled at the close of the play.
The way the stage is dressed at the beginning is equally noteworthy – it is draped in white sheets that, I think, serve to symbolise the purity and innocence of Desdemona. The stage remains dressed like this for the duration of the play, up until the tragic culmination; the “bedroom scene”, when Desdemona’s innocence is at its most poignant and affecting. The white sheets also function as a portent of the virtuous Desdemona’s wronged murder by Othello. This in itself is further heightened by the fact that Desdemona wears white throughout.
This production, running at just over two hours, encapsulates the key scenes and themes of Othello well. At first I was unsure how to feel about George Jauncey’s portrayal of Iago. He certainly put his own unique spin on this infamous Shakespearean character. He did not simply play Iago as a dark, Machiavellian villain, but bestowed him with a rambunctious air, something I have not seen any actor do in any other production of Othello. At first I felt this Iago to be overly rambunctious. He even seemed to err on the side of foolishness, in my opinion, which rather undermined his darkness and his cleverness in manipulating those around him. He also appeared to be lacking in the charisma and magnetism that you would expect from Iago.
However, as the production progressed, I realised that I had judged too harshly and too rashly, as I was thrown by the idiosyncrasies Jauncey brought to the character. When it came to the soliloquies, Iago’s sneering rambunctiousness took on a new level, and seemed befitting. Although he had verged on obsequiousness in the way he spoke to Othello on several occasions, this ultimately, and very effectively, highlighted the fact that he is only “seeming so”. In his soliloquies he was free to reveal his true machinations. All things considered, I came to the conclusion that Jauncey’s Iago was probably the strongest performance. As the play progressed, his darkness came more and more to the forefront, and his rambunctiousness served as a tool by which he became an increasingly disturbing character.
Kingsley Amadi’s portrayal of Othello, on the other hand, was lacking in depth and dimension. He presented himself well when being accused by Desdemona’s father. He also made much of the protagonist’s anger, really straining himself to the utmost when it came to the most powerful scenes of Othello’s jealously, truly exploding with rage as such scenes called for. At the same time, I think he could easily have been accused of overacting in several cases. Due to the extreme nature of Amadi’s performance, a lot of the subtleties of Othello were lost.
The bedroom scene still held, as it should, almost unbearably tense undercurrents of violence before the final act – Othello’s murder of Desdemona. However, the underlying violence was so omnipresent that it rather overwhelmed the poignancy of the scene. There is ample room in the play for Othello to express himself with gentleness at times. If done well, this really highlights the great tragedy of Desdemona’s murder by his hand. For example, when Othello says “put out the light, and then put out the light“, there should be some truly powerful emotion and regret behind this phrase. I was not convinced by the way in which Amadi recited this line, amongst others – the emotional resonance was wanting.
Amadi was successful in portraying Othello with recourse to a great deal of anger and bellowing when called for. In fact his Othello came across as entirely deranged by the close of this play. Although this is certainly one aspect of this character, it overshadowed all other possible readings of Othello. As a consequence, his utmost despair at having realised he has killed an innocent Desdemona was not performed convincingly here. The final speech, such an exquisite piece of language, ultimately failed to move me as much as it could have.
The Emanate Theatre Company’s stated aim is to produce “fresh, new interpretations of classic texts”. However, for the larger part, the other characters of Othello – such as Desdemona, Cassio, Bianca, Emilia and Roderigo – were all played competently yet rather conventionally in this production. One exception that did intrigue me was the fact that the Duke was made to be a Duchess, played by Ruth McMeel. This change of gender does give this version of Othello another dimension. It could be argued that, when accusing Othello at the end of the play, the Duchess’ diatribe against him is made all the more powerful by her being a woman.
All in all, whilst this version of Othello does take an altogether traditional approach (except for the notable change of gender from Duke to Duchess), and Amadi’s portrayal of Othello does not succeed in plumbing the very depths of the play’s eponymous character, this remains a fair production. I should add that when it came to the final closing scenes, with the tension of Othello at its pitch point, I did find myself gripped by the action, if not always by the strength of the acting itself.