first night

Othello

Alex Prescot reviews Aidan's College Theatre's modernised take on a Shakespearean classic.

 Billed as ‘Shakespeare’s classic tale of manipulation and jealousy, dragged into the 21st century’, ACT’s Othello relocates the tragic tale of the Moor to wartime Iraq, recalling the precedent set by Nicholas Hytner’s 2013 production at the National, and emphasising the universality of the text. Entertaining this production was, but the famous tragedy has more to it than this production brought out. ‘Othello’ depicts a Moor who begins having battled against his stereotype as a savage, and then tragically conforms to it as he is manipulated by Iago into jealousy over his new wife, Desdemona. Whilst the tragedy can be set in almost any period, more thought needed to be placed into the setting in Iraq; for me, it felt a bit close to home, with the odd reference to Baghdad not quite enough to carry it through, especially with conflict and occupation ongoing.

Though the play itself does suggest it, director Becky Wilson choses Iago as her protagonist, a decision carried by Adam Simpson’s performance, who constructs his web of deceit with panache. He had a focus which some of the rest of the cast lacked, who occasionally didn’t trust the script and turned to overacting to ensure Shakespeare’s meaning was completely accessible, and Iago’s direct address soliloquys gave the audience a nice connection to him over the rest of the cast, if they were at times themselves a little over-performed. Wesley Milligan in the eponymous role of Othello has obviously put thought into the differing facets of his character and delivers moments of real pathos, but he doesn’t fully develop the more authoritarian side of his character. I much more readily believed the pitiful lover than the jealous tyrant.

Whilst some individual performances were wholly engaging, certain relationships between characters felt a little half-baked. I wanted to see the seeds of Iago and Emilia’s (Angharad Philips’) intriguing power-play marriage from the start, but it only really hits its stride towards the end. Similarly, in some of the challenging larger scenes, background characters blended into one another, a shame when considering the strength of performances in the smaller scenes. These connections between characters were also hampered by a few strange directional choices: frequent blackouts which seldom had music gave the piece a stilted feeling and blocking occasionally left actors delivering lines with their backs to the audience. That said, credit is due to producer Ellen Orange and costume designer Daphne Marini, as well as the rest of their team, for their visually captivating set and costume, especially for the army barracks. Lighting and sound effects for the most part were simple and effective, and intelligent cuts meant the plot kept moving and I never found myself bored.

Generally, I felt this production had all of the makings of a great success, but needed just a little more thought – ‘Othello’ is mammoth undertaking and to make it relevant to a modern audience the Shakespearean language has to be the only barrier between us and it. This is an ‘Othello’ that doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any stretch, but with writing as good as this, maybe it doesn’t need to?

6 May 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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