In a mixed production, Golda Rosheuvel shines brightly as a female Othello. By gender-swapping the title role, director Gemma Bodinetz finds a new way into the text, illuminating the racism and adding a large dose of misogyny and homophobia for Rosheuvel’s brilliant Othello to contend with.
The success of the play rests firmly on the shoulders of Othello and Iago (Patrick Brennan), and in this production Bodinetz has two fine actors on whom to rely. Brennan is an obsequious and vicious Iago, cruelly manipulating Rosheuvel’s potent general to madness and beyond. Emily Hughes plays Desdemona as an appealingly bright and chirpy young woman, endowing the character with hidden depths. As the abused woman, Hughes has a tricky line to tread, but the deeply loving relationship between Desdeoma and Othello in the first half underscores why Desdemona puts up with Othello’s jealousies and violence until it’s too late. Their interactions are well charted, and make the pathos of Othello’s descent moving.
Rosheuvel’s femaleness is never shied away from – her costumes (Jacquie Davies) are subtly othering from the outset. Not only does she wear printed clothes and head wraps to contrast with Desdemona’s cocktail dresses and heels, but also as a soldier, her uniform is slightly different to the men that she commands. Othello’s status as the other, the outsider, is consistently reinforced – microagressively, if you will. Her race and her sex are front and centre, and Bodinetz skilfully demonstrates how much these things influence Othello and those around her.
There are few women on stage (the Duke is here transposed to a Duchess, Emma Bispham, who doubles as Emilia), and the racist insults that Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio hurl hit harder when it’s three men attacking a woman. There’s an additional undercurrent to all that is said – and not said – which builds tension very cleverly.
The first half drags a little and the second half feels rushed at times. There’s an awful lot of circling and pacing on a bare stage (designed by Molly Lacey Davies, Natalie Johnson and Jocelyn Meall), and playing in the round means sightlines are not always great. Othello’s slide into jealous rage feels quite abrupt, and despite Rosheuvel and Hughes’ plausibly loving relationship, the deep love and betrayal that Othello feels isn’t given much time to develop or deepen.
That is not to detract from Rosheuvel’s barnstorming performance, though. Where Iago paces and plots, she is still, calm, detached, except when she lights up at the sight of Desdemona. Rosheuvel is a commanding presence, able to silence brawling men with words rather than violence (and she has a neat line in knee-to-the-groin when necessary, too). This is not a woman you want to mess with; this is a woman is control, which makes her downfall all the more poignant.
The second half hurtles towards its inevitable conclusion, helped along by Peter Coyte’s atmospheric score. Brennan is a frighteningly persuasive Iago, weaving his web, and Rosheuvel goes from controlled commander to helpless fly very quickly. The casting decisions offer a new way to look at the power dynamics in Othello, and Rosheuvel rises to the challenge.
Othello is at the Everyman, Liverpool, until July 10th. For more details, click here.