For a play with a character’s name for the title, it’s surprising to what extent Shakespeare’s Othello can end up seeming to be about the man who betrays him. This is particularly true of Richard Twyman’s new production for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. Despite a carefully measured performance from Abraham Popoola in the tile role including subtle and sweetly loving gestures towards Desdemona (Norah Lopez Holden), this feels like the Iago show. Or more specifically, the Mark Lockyer show.
Despite his disconcertingly convivial manner that includes playing several of the lines for laughs – he even elicits an almost Panto-style boo from the audience at one point – Lockyer’s Iago is one of the more complex portrayals. Mixed up in his stalking and scheming is the suggestion that he doesn’t quite understand why he is doing all this. He’s more mad than bad, or at least as mad as he is bad, a man caught in a self-destructive and destructive vortex he quickly loses control of how to handle. He lies like it’s an absolute compulsion and gives a comically juvenile jump at his own shadow. By the end he is just a little slumped against a pole staring at the three bodies on the floor. You wonder if he has any ability to comprehend the conclusion to his actions, which makes the entire play and all the characters within it seem a part of one giant tragedy, even the villain himself.
Georgia Lowe’s design starts off life resembling the interior of an over-lit concrete car park. On to this explodes loud drunken singing, cagoule-draped soldiers and leisurely-performed wedding dances. There’s a little nod to Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III with a silver microphone dangling from the centre of the lighting rig over the stage (later replaced by a leather punch bag). It’s loud, modern, sweary and stark, and places as much emphasis on the overall aesthetic as the other ideas within it. The only problem is it feels slightly top-heavy with all of most stylised scenes landing before the interval, except for a gently mesmeric moment where Desdemona dances on a table accompanied by Emilia’s (Katy Stephens) drumming on the wood.
Following on from an enjoyable but fairly traditional rendering of All’s Well That Ends Well in 2016, this is a much more exciting direction for Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory to be moving in. In the use of rock music and wearing of gasmasks, there are literal links between this production and the company’s outstanding Romeo and Juliet with Paapa Essiedu in 2015, but there’s also a link between the productions in their ambition and insistence in keeping Shakespeare relevant.
The most overt way the production claims relevancy is by foregrounding Othello’s Muslim identity and conversion from Islam to Christianity. Two essays in the programme by Jerry Brotton and Abdul-Rehman Malik discuss the character’s attempts at assimilation into the white Christian culture and the racism, suspicion and hatred directed back at him. Popoola’s largely calm, controlled and – in the way he behaves with Desdemona – youthful portrayal makes both his turn to jealousy and madness, and his manipulation by Iago feel all the more cruel.
Lockyer’s superb performance as the insidious evil sliding like spilt oil across the happiness of others is almost creepily compelling. He’s deceptively easy to laugh along with and adept at making the audience feel like he’s maybe a bit of a buffoon, rather than truly dangerous. What’s really scary is how hard it is to stop watching him.
Othello is on at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol until 1 April 2017. Click here for more details.