Simon Jenner on the South Bank
1st December 2022
“Where should Othello go?” One of the lines cut from Othello‘s truncated final speeches is also asked by this production, in some ways returning us Othello’s isolation in a mute rebuke to those who might hint that we’re beyond racism; where Giles Terera in the title role is slowly beleaguered and no-one shakes his proffered hand. Indeed, in some ways the production turns its back on Othello too.
Rosy McEwen and Tanya Franks. Photo credit: Myah Jeffers.
And in case we miss the point in this re-thought Othello opening at the National’s Lyttleton, directed by Clint Dyer, there’s Chloe Lamford’s design. Mainly classical with flights of steps leading three ways – it’s above them we’re drawn: briefly-projected posters of previous Othellos including Olivier’s notorious 1964 blackface production.
Video co-designers Nina Dunn and Gino Ricardo Green aren’t called on to scope much more than this: in many ways Dyer’s production is classical, even neo-classical, with (but for being green) Michael Vale’s quasi-Italian fascist-style uniforms in a vaguely twentieth-twenty-first-century space: Desdemona’s smart black trouser suit is contemporary but there’s no gimmicky updates. In a word, monumental.
There’s even a quasi-Greek chorus first aiding the Brabantio-baiting of Iago and Roderigo, then menacing Othello at the council, but mainly they follow as Iago’s admiring Myrmidons. At one point they don riot shields – but against no riot unless an empty show of force by the state.
Though sound designers/composers Peter Malkin and Benjamin Grant are called on to provide repeated thunder (long after the actual storm), rain, drum-beats sound-slices proclaim a theatre of stagily ominous portent; lit stormily too by Jai Morjaria.
Steffan Rizzi and Giles Terera. Photo credit: Myah Jeffers.
It’s a full three-hours with word-kerning in the last scenes, including a proleptic hug of grief as Gratiano breaks news to Lodovico of Brabantio’s death long before it is normal at the end but here re-worded and brief.
By now Terera has impressed with a fleet, lean-speaking rationale and a danger main-springed from his arms-bearing from “seven years’ pith”. He stills the whirling torches around him with a physical economy born of command: he doesn’t need to leap or bound to cow others. Which makes startling out of his orbit – and epileptic fit – the more shocking, a breakout in self-betrayal, occasioning “Is this the noble Moor?” from a readily-doubting Lodovico.
Though there’s warmth, indeed tenderness between him and Rosy McEwen’s Desdemona, their attraction is hard to pin down. McEwen’s resolutely contemporary, projecting a Desdemona of privilege. There’s a clever touch of head-girl, especially the way McEwen politely but fearlessly faces down the council (who perhaps take their revenge in early recall of Othello). And a daughter not averse to slinky persuasion; where you feel – the play’s coded in this misogyny – she’s tried the same on her headlong father, Brabantio (a lowering Jay Simpson, also ambassador Gratiano). You don’t feel this Desdemona sighs at the thought of battle. At the same time, since other agency’s denied her, you feel McEwen’s Desdemona pulses with release.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Myah Jeffers.
What is exemplary though is the peeling-off of new-married joy, if not bliss, to Othello’s rapid abuse. The decline, and harrowing-up of Desdemona’s world: McEwen’s scenes with Terera and her maid, Emilia (Tanya Franks) fill out the emotional violence here restrained – references to striking in this production happily fall short in a rough push: since the shock is visceral, occasioning a slow shuddering withdrawal. Terera’s icy in the pivotal “Have you prayed tonight?” where his eyes flash withheld violence, a ritual slaughter. McEwen and Terera though refuse such simple dispatch and the scene’s extended with visceral truth, a woman shocked out of life, resisting all the way.
Bianca (Kirsty J Curtis) is similarly treated but as a class echo: more overtly sexualised in her feelings for Cassio (Rory Fleck Byrne’s portrayal of a warm, confiding new officer earnestly out of his depth) she’s as usual abused, but less strident, more ardent, more a victim than a spirited ‘punk’.
It’s Franks’ Emilia though who almost causes one to retitle the play. Wry but warm, desirous of her husband’s sexual attention, continually disappointed, scorned after she magics the required handkerchief for Iago, she’s finally abused – “Filth, thou liest!” – then rounds spectacularly on him. Finally she’s murderously chased as Iago leaps across the stage for vengeance before anyone can stop him. Kev McCurdy’s fight scenes rethink the spatial violence of this work – sometimes ritualistic, sometimes as here thrillingly horrible – alongside Lucie Pankhurst’s movement direction.
With a moral compass the superior of everyone else in the whole play, Franks’ Emilia calibrates just why she might cheat on Iago “for the whole world” and “what men put us too” with a teasing, show-stopping eddy of night with Desdemona, ending in McEwen’s singing Sola Akingbola’s Willow Song. Franks’ fun, her withering from amorousness, her bitter disappointment, finally her quivering fury at men – renders this an outstanding, frankly show-stealing performance; a towering reason to see this Othello.
Jack Bardoe’s Roderigo speaks the lines anew so you realise they’re less doltish and more pathetic than usual: Aguecheek is more fool than Bardoe here. Roderigo’s just one foil, like Franks, like Terera, to the self-delighting counterweight to Emilia – her husband.
Paul Hilton’s Iago – moustachio’d like a cut-price Moseley – preens and struts to his shadows, finally to the rest of us, like an agile Pandarus from hell bequeathing us his diseases. Indeed, there seems some infection caught from the recently-written Troilus and Cressida: connections between the two arch-confiders brought out with startling revelation. Hilton, more showman than introvert, is intent on selling his “divinity of hell” without quite milking the hatred some do. He neither seems to hate too well or regret anything. His penultimate line, now placed last of all and repeated later still, “What you know, you know” is Pandarus-like. It invites our complicity in racism and misogyny.
There’s strong work from Martin Marquez’s authoritative Duke of Venice with a weighty voice and a look of a Renaissance cardinal; Joe Bolland’s anxious darting Messenger, Steffan Rizzi’s nasty Senator; and various gentlemen/officers.
This leaves Terera beleaguered in a long withdrawing roar of sympathy: true moral polarity tugs violently between husband-and-wife Iago and Emilia. To emphasize this, the opening of Othello’s last speech is made solely to Joshua Lacey’s long-scornful Lodovico. Then as the rest file in, his last lines ending “perplexed in the extreme” rob him of a self-appointed finale. Dismissed as he stands, self-stabbed, his slow collapse (the lines “let it be hid” spoken but palpably impossible on such an open stage) is another turning-away from “the Moor”: stripped of dignity with none but perhaps Cassio to mourn him.
What we know, we know: Othello, Iago, indeed all men on stage and off, stand indited. We’re forced to see both racism and misogyny, women as moral agents and a production that might, without irony, call itself Emilia.