The RSC’s production of Othello is relatively early in its UK tour when it stops off in Hackney for just five days. The production is the first to be directed by the RSC’s newly-appointed Artistic Associate Kathryn Hunter, founder of Theatre de Complicite and winner of the Olivier Award for Best Actress in 1990 for her portrayal of the millionairess in Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit. One thing is for certain—Kathryn is out to take risks and make an impact in her directorial debut as Artistic Associate. Unfortunately not all these risks are successful, resulting in a performance that often feels drawn-out, farcical and lacking in emotional depth.
The performance starts out on the wrong foot, after dealing with several problems created by a disorganised theatre venue. The cast also suffers a small setback as Michael Goold, scheduled to play Iago, is currently indisposed, the role now being played by Alex Hassell, who was previously cast as Cassio. This shuffle has a damaging effect on the play as a whole. There are several unfortunate and understandable flubbed lines, but this is not the main problem. For many, Iago is the essence of a good performance of Othello. He is the lynch pin. In order to make any sense of the tragedy which unfurls, there needs to be an Iago who is deceptive, envious, brooding, frustrated, bitter, and incredibly angry with the world and all around him. At least, these are the characteristics that should, indeed must, show through in his soliloquies. Without this, none of the play makes any sense. Hassell’s Iago is not nearly angry enough, vicious, calculating or threatening enough in his delivery of lines. He pronounces, “I hate the Moor,” and yet I just do not believe him. This Iago appears to act on whim. He lacks the emotional depth desperately needed to drag the audience and their emotions down the path of tragedy.
Othello, played by Patrice Naiamamba, is a familiar name in the RSC cast list, most recently involved in the incredibly successful “History Cycle.” However, I found myself never quite being able to reconcile his presentation of the Moor of Venice.
Everything about Naiamamba’s portrayal is over-emphasised, which is a key flaw of much of this production. Instead of honest naivety, we see an unthinking protagonist who seems to lack the geniality and intelligence (if misguided) one would normally associate with Othello. Naiamamba demonstrates love for Desdemona (Natalia Tena), is clearly passionate, and this at least helps to create a greater case for the tragedy of Othello’s final act, but there are just too many moments where his performance seems ineffectual or inappropriate. Othello’s angry outbursts upon discovering ‘proof’ of Desdemona’s deceit fail to emotionally engage the audience; his anger is portrayed only in bestial growlings and through rushing the delivery of the text, which as a result, is occasionally lost. Most painful is the final scene, just after Othello kills Desdemona. As he finally realises he has been tricked, he cries out “oh, fool, fool, fool!”…whilst outlandishly slapping himself round the face. Thus the atmosphere of heart-rending tragedy is shattered irreconcilably as the audience descends into laughter.
Thank goodness for the women in this production—they offer both light relief and gravitas. Well-placed humour comes in the form of Kath Whitefield’s Bianca, who is a vivacious presence, brightening up the lethargy of preceding scenes. Tamzin Griffin as Emilia also gives a powerful performance. It is easy to imagine the woman presented being tethered to the despicable Iago. Her performance as she mourns Desdemona’s death is powerful and encourages feelings of tragedy for an audience that struggles to find it elsewhere in this production. Robert Vernon’s Cassio, despite being an understudy for the part, is also a charming and persuasive performance. Vernon is particularly effective is his scene lamenting the loss of his valued reputation. His innocent despair is endearing and evokes much sympathy from an audience eager to connect.
The set design is an innovative concept: the imposing bridge at the start of the play splits in two and is hoisted and tugged around the stage, representing pathways and ships at various points. Yet more often than not it seems more of a hindrance than a help. The metallic screens, used at one point as waves, also seem a little self-conscious, as does the constant freezing of characters on stage. The concept is interesting, but the result is a little awkward. The 1950s costuming is a little more successful, helping to add some coherence to the production.
Some aspects of Hunter’s direction are indeed radical. Every production of Othello has to confront the difficult issue of race, and Hunter takes the admirable approach of hitting it head on. During the evening of the soldiers’ revelries, a blacked up Al Jolson-like character comes on stage and entertains the troops with songs mocking their general, the Moor. A life-size doll, representing Desdemona then gives birth to a golliwog. Whilst the scene is effective in illustrating the dichotomy Othello suffers day-to-day as both a respected General and a mocked Moor, the drama seems more shocking than purposeful. There are occasional moments of elation and stage magic, for example the performance of the Willow Song, where billowing sheets and pallid blue lighting create a dream-like sequence with beautiful music (composed by Stephen Warbeck) and a wandering Desdemona singing her lamentable song. But one magical moment of theatre after nearly three and a half hours is far too little, far too late.