Fresh from a successful week with their production of Animal Farm, the National Youth Theatre are back at the Royal and Derngate with Othello, abridged by Dfiza Benson, and directed by Miranda Cromwell. When I originally read about the production, I expected it to be closer to a serving suggestion than anything approximating the original Othello. But well over 99% of the text is pure Will; and, anyway, Shakespeare is big and strong and tough enough to lend his work to all manner of adaptations and no number of radical reworkings is ever going to eliminate the Bard’s original plays. More about the language later…
We’re in the Club Cyprus, Manchester. It’s 1991 – thirty years ago. The joint is jumpin’ and the ravers are ravin’. Othello has just got married to Desdemona and they are now wife and wife, much to the fury of Brabantio. Iago, bouncer at the club, is the evil link that binds the story together, manipulating everyone to his own advantage, all of his villainy stemming from that one vital belief: “I hate the Moor.” It’s fascinating to see how this production, incidentally, with its gender-blind casting, strongly brings out the original themes of racism, but there’s not a whiff of homophobia. Brabantio is not remotely concerned that his daughter Desdemona has married a woman; it’s her colour that’s the issue.
The NYT cast and creative team have thrown everything at this production to make it a spectacle of light, colour, sound and movement that assaults the eyes and ears and gives the audience much to enjoy and appreciate. The commitment and creativity that has given rise to this 21st century Othello is to be applauded. And there are some superb performances. From the start, Francesca Amewudah-Rivers stands out as a truly noble and dignified Othello, crystal clear in her oratory, superbly at ease with taking centre stage with this enviable role. Her stage presence shines bright and she is very, very watchable. And she is matched by a fantastically confident performance from Connor Crawford as Iago who delivers an unusually frantic and jumpy reading of the role, but which makes absolute sense. This is a Iago who knows he is chancing his arm all the way through, desperate to achieve his goals, but with none of the laid-back, quietly superior attitude of some Iagos. This one has to work hard to engineer what he wants, and it works extremely well.
Ishmel Bridgeman gives us an amusingly cocky and vain Cassio, pretending to be streetwise but still a lightweight, wet-behind-the-ears kind of guy, so that he quickly finds life inside the Club Cyprus a dangerous environment. Julia Kass is excellent as Emilia, already knowing she is being duped by her husband when she gives him Desdemona’s scarf (there are no handkerchiefs in 1990s Manchester). And I really liked Jack Humphrey’s Brabantio, all powerless bluster and fury, seeing his paternal influence disappear in front of his eyes as old age inevitably gives way to youth. He almost makes you sympathise with his character despite his racism, which shows just how subtle a performance it is.
I firmly adhere to a belief I’ve held for decades now, which is that I would prefer to see a bold and brave attempt to do something new, even if it fails, than a lazy or complacent success. And that’s exactly how I feel about this production because, as a whole, it doesn’t fully work. There are two big innovations with the structure of this show. One is making Othello a woman, married to another woman, and that works extremely well. The other is the introduction of a Chorus, everyman characters whose voices emerge from the recesses of the dance floor whispering their words of suspicion and jealousy to Othello. At first, I thought it was a clever notion, representing all those unidentifiable thoughts that come into everyone’s head when you have a doubt about something. But the Chorus’ whisperings and warnings, endlessly repeated, soon took away the subtlety and nuance of Iago’s persuasions and influence. No wonder Othello fell foul of jealousy; it was delivered all around him like a sledgehammer. So, personally, that didn’t work for me.
The club/disco setting also begins to pall as the play progresses. Whilst there’s no doubt about the ensemble’s commitment to keeping that rave movement going, rather than enhancing our understanding of the story and the characters’ motivations, it becomes a distraction. It takes away from our understanding – and it certainly takes away the audibility of some of the more important scenes in the latter end of the play. As a result, the whole evening, which starts off very pacey and on-the-nose, begins to get a little drawn-out; and at 105 minutes with no interval, it feels surprisingly long.
Dfiza Benson’s new text takes much of Shakespeare’s original, replaces the Iago/Cassio drinking scene with the disco – which is clever, removes Iago’s last line (a shame, because his final silence is one of the most intriguing things about the play), and adds about twenty instances of the F word. Gentle reader, I am no prude. And it made me laugh that f**k was the first word uttered (much better than the original Tush!) But it didn’t always sit well for me. Othello always expresses him/herself with nobility and dignity, and imagination. Would Othello, who elegantly says Keep up your bright swords for the dew will rust ‘em, turn to Desdemona and storm off with a Well F**k You? It’s Othello’s language that raises the character out of the commonplace. By bringing her language down to the level of the others, it diminishes this stature. If the aim of the production is to establish Othello as a powerful, queer, black woman (quoting the online programme), I feel this use of language doesn’t help.
I also couldn’t understand why the play was set in 1991. Othello and Desdemona are proudly married – not just living together but the full legal ceremony – but equal marriage wasn’t introduced in the UK until 2013. In 1991, the country was still in the grip of the dreaded Clause 28 and LGBT rights were being eroded. Surely it would have made more sense for it to be set in the here and now – pandemic notwithstanding?
For me, although the show is a plucky failure, that’s actually a much better thing than it seems at first sight. It takes one of the great theatrical classics and transports it into our lifetime with our cultural references and shows how we still have to learn the age-old lessons about racism, jealousy and man’s (in this case woman’s) folly. It’s also performed with huge confidence and style by a very talented company. Maybe it’s not for purists, but then maybe purists shouldn’t be such snowflakes (to use the pejorative term of the era). Quentin Letts would hate it, so that can only be a good thing.
Rehearsal photographs by Helen Murray
Three-sy does it!