Ellen McDougall’s stunning production for Shakespeare’s Globe plays down – but doesn’t deny – Othello’s racism, and instead, drags its rampant misogyny into the spotlight. A bloodied bed is a constant presence on the Wanamaker stage as a visual guide to this Othello’s concerns: the ferocious sexual jealousy of men which annihilates women.
But the women aren’t just victims. Even with her limited dialogue, Natalie Klamar’s Desdemona is solidly present. We’re also treated to a gender-reversed Cassio, which plays beautifully with the text. If Desdemona could love a Moor, poisons Iago, why not a woman? Here, jealousy’s the matter in hand, not gender or race. Joanna Horton gives her Michelle Cassio a naturalistic charm as subtle touches help the reading – Cassio tries to ‘unwoman’ herself as Othello’s second-in-command but never tries to mimic her fellow soldier’s machismo.
Even Emilia – Iago’s abused yet complicate wife and often the play’s most problematic female – is given agency. Played with upright intellectual curiosity by Thalissa Teixeira, she gains gravitas. Iago’s absurd railings simply bounce off her beauty and dignity. It’s clear his complaints about his wifely woes are the makings of an addled mind, revealing his insane worldview. It is her final words to Desdemona and against her husband that linger long in the memory before Iago murders and then callously dumps her body next to Desdemona’s. They’re piled up like rubbish, as the men turn back to their argry self-obsession.
Sam Spruell’s spiteful Iago and Kurt Egyiawan’s insecure Othello are two men wrapped in a fatal embrace of toxic masculinity – shifting blame for their own selfishness and anxiety onto their loyal wives. Othello loses interest in Desdemona once she is won and bedded and, it’s far from hard to believe that the ease with which Iago persuades him she is false stems from his subconscious desire to be rid of her. Iago, meanwhile, manipulates for its own sake – a classic bully who needs to feel and see others’ pain to salve their own.
McDougal’s production is a beautiful affair that cleverly blends the period and contemporary. And it cuts deeper just some elegant stage design to include self-aware touches which highlight that this is a classic text given a willfully modern reading. Mostly monochrome with flashes of blood red, there are stylish snatches of period dress, while grotesque over-sized codpieces, mounted animal skulls and gleaming armour elegantly encase us in this man’s world. Inventive and emotive use of the Wanamaker’s candlelight hints at contemporaneity rather than shouting about it, but the real tells come in a smart framing device from the Duke at the beginning and end, some joyful additions to the text – Iago’s crass, misogynist football-thug style ‘witticism’ strengthens his characterisation – and the music.
Choral arrangements of female-friendly bubblegum pop are sewn into the fabric of the play, from Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl and Britney Spears to the repetition of the beautiful refrain from Lana Del Ray’s Video Games – a paean for deranged desire – a cappella by candlelight. As much as it delights and surprises, it also wrings out the idea that representation and context is everything. Modern versions of Shakespeare drag his plays into the present but, here, we kind of meet him halfway, shooting ourselves into the past. It feels like a Third Way for Shakespeare – beyond ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ interpretations: this is Ellen McDougall’s vision of Othello, and it is so right for right now.
Othello is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 22nd April 2017. Click here for more details.