Othello is definitely a play that could do with a remixing. Though one of Shakespeare’s most exquisitely structured tragedies, it often struggles to escape the racist imagery at its heart: a violent, easily-duped black man murdering his innocent white wife. Darren Raymond and Intermission Theatre Company seem like good candidates for revising a beautiful but problematic play in thoughtful and exciting terms. And while their Othello Remixed hits some interesting notes, Raymond and his company ultimately don’t remix enough: the play remains mired in its unacceptable Jacobean bigotries.
The setting is London, a boxing gym, an up-and-coming star named Othello who has chosen Cassio as his corner man over sparring partner Iago, and who has just started sleeping with his coach’s daughter, Desdemona. The characters speak a blend of Shakespeare’s text and contemporary dialogue, but there’s no obvious logic for when they turn to verse. The uneasy blend starts to sound a bit like putting a No Fear Shakespeare volume onstage, the contemporary dialogue scenes sounding like awkward paraphrases rather than scenes capable of standing on their own, without knowledge of Shakespeare’s play to underpin them and add some depth. Despite updating scenes and plot devices—text messages, rap battles, drugs, a secret meeting in a Nandos—Raymond hews closely to the plot beats of Shakespeare’s play.
One major innovation, however, is the addition of a character called (and dressed as) the Referee, who slinks around the edges of the boxing ring and transforms Iago’s early soliloquies into dialogues. She functions like his evil angel, proposing his more dastardly plots and setting most of the play’s violence into motion. It’s a baffling choice to have Iago’s (and later Othello’s) most evil inner psyche, the one that drives them both towards extreme misogynistic violence, be embodied by a woman in Danielle Adegoke. It’s not remotely clear what this distance is supposed to mean, what she’s supposed to represent, or why she’s driven to cause these men to enact such horrible violence against women. Her existence also leaves Baba Oyejide’s Iago strangely reactive. The fascinating horror of Othello is often in watching the unfolding of Iago’s manipulations, in being taken into his confidence through his direct addresses to the audience. Othello Remixed strips him of both these powers, which may be why the play overall feels like it lacks an engine.
By populating Othello’s world with an entirely black cast, the play’s most fundamentally racist ideas are arguably neutered—though there’s something troubling as well about the depiction of a community of young black athletes who snap instantly into murderous violence at the least provocation. But easing back on the question of Othello’s racial difference throws the play’s ugly and possibly irredeemable sexism into stark clarity.
Without Shakespeare’s setting and poetry to lift the play out of realism, Othello Remixed becomes the story of a man transformed into an abuser, and from an abuser to a murderer—all told from his point of view. Raymond makes no additional room for Desdemona’s perspective, a fact that feels less and less excusable as the play goes on. Why should we watch a man who is driven to murder his girlfriend within a structure that shapes the story as inescapably his tragedy? Maybe it’s useful to see that this is fundamentally the story of Othello… but I would hope a modern remix would think harder about whether that’s a story, a framework, to be propagating in the present day.
Othello Remixed needs to either stray farther from its source material or cleave closer to it. Instead, it’s lost in a middle ground where it neither illuminates the contemporary resonances of Shakespeare’s actual text, nor transforms the original into something that can speak more sensitively to current discourses of race and gender.
Othello Remixed is on at Omnibus Theatre, Clapham till 14th July. More info here.