There is a moment in Swivel Theatre Company’s robust and impressive debut production of Othello when Emelia (Jennifer Shakesby) delivers a speech on male-female relationships (“But I do think it is their husbands’ faults / If wives do fall...”). The moment bubbles with the possibilities of back story; we feel that an entire second play has gone on before, and it is a testament to Shakespeare’s writing—and Shakesby’s talent—that we witness un-told fights, jealousies, hatreds and gameplays, compressed into some dozen and a half lines. Diyan Zora—in her directorial debut—sets a steady course for Shakespeare’s tragedy and utilizes atmosphere and a strong cast to chilling effect.
In a program note, Swivel states the company seeks “to balance creative license with traditional interpretation.” Zora finds this balance in paying close attention to the text and situating the play in a modern military state. The concept is aided by the theatre itself. Barons Court Theatre is a cavernous space under the Curtains Up Pub. An energy of hard surfaces runs through the production, as characters smack the solid walls and slap the floor. Fight sequences (choreographed by Dominic Leeder, who plays Lodovico) are given a brutal quality from the cold tile, concrete blocks, and studded wood paneling. The theatre’s low, damp ceilings lend a claustrophobic sense to the production, enhanced by Jane Cahill’s muted lighting design. More creative use could be made of the stage, since many scenes are played against the back wall, but as a space the Barons Court Theatre is snugly fitted for this Othello.
Swivel employed an open casting policy, resulting in a solid cast. Tom Fava’s Iago makes clear his motivation(s) for plotting against Othello (El Razzougui). He quickly switches from insinuating advisor to fast-thinking plotter in his well-delivered soliloquies. Leeder’s blokey Lodovico and Tom Stanley’s Cassio create a believable atmosphere of soldiery. The true revelation is that of Rowena Lennon’s Duke, often a side part, but Lennon turns her into a business-minded manager in business skirt and high heels. The early discussions of war and troop movements are handled with a firm officiousness. In giving Othello his charge, Lennon has a (delightful) touch of M commissioning Bond. Yet she also captures the drama’s horror when at the end she witnesses her controlled world fall apart under the influence of misguided human passions.
Razzougui’s Othello commands respect and comes across a natural leader. In his initial love for Desdemona (Devon Lang Wilton), he is all lover, winking to Iago as he says “Good night” and heads to bed. But his transformation is impressive, if perhaps a bit too quick (the pacing of the jealous-making scene could use some tweaking). Wilton as Desdemona is free and happy-go-lucky, and shocked beyond the point of action after being accused of adultery. Even as she is being strangled, she tries to kiss Othello.
The company keeps the pace cracking—a good thing as the 8 pm start means the show does not finish until nearly 11. But the production finds a sweet spot among competing claims—pace, attention to the verse, sustainable drama, and emotional connection. As a debut production, Swivel’s Othello is a confident show. It provides not only a solidly acted and gripping evening, but it also promotes textual nuance, allowing unspoken backstories to appear.