My relationship with Othello is one usually filled with high expectations followed by disappointment and dissatisfaction. The play is notoriously complex and violent, both in plot and in themes, and rarely are narrative and content intertwined satisfactorily. Productions can use complex sets and costuming to show the intricacy of Iago’s scheming at work, but often at the cost of Othello the character, whose identity as a black Muslim has been overlooked in recent mainstream productions. So here, at last, a production of Othello that doesn’t stop at using Othello’s Muslim Turkish identity as the production’s aesthetic, and instead endeavours to explore the reality of being a black man of Muslim faith navigating a Christian world. At last, a production of Othello that puts Desdemona at the centre, both as subject and in acknowledging that the reason for each man’s failure is his insistence on her objectivity.
The Tobacco Factory’s modern production provides a refreshing, character-driven and intimate approach to a play which can often be played as a grand tragedy of corrupted moving parts. Here, Othello’s tragedy is that of losing faith: both in his religion as he succumbs to Christian ideas of revenge, jealousy and sin, and his belief in Desdemona.
Othello’s fall from grace is played with magnetizing power by Abraham Popoola. As a Muslim, Othello is at his most genuine, but his most hidden. His marriage to Desdemona in a Muslim ceremony serves as a beautiful opening scene. The lovers stand on their prayer rug, and Othello’s handkerchief is wrapped lovingly around Desdemona’s wrist as they sing the blessings and prayers for marriage. Yet as Othello the General, he keeps his prayer beads in his pocket and a crucifix on his chest, only brings out the beads when he is genuinely worried or feeling vulnerable.
As Iago’s words poison his happiness, he removes the beads from his pocket. Later, convinced of revenge, he breaks the prayer beads so that they scatter and bounce across the stage and into the audience. Kneeling before Iago, clasping his cross, the composition hearkens back to the opening wedding ceremony. This craftily repeated imagery made me question how much of what Othello experiences is a result of what he has had to internalise in order to survive, and how much of the suffering he experiences throughout the play (beyond his past of being sold into slavery and forced to convert) is a result of living in a colonized world.
Whilst Othello’s story is complicated and nuanced by focusing on his faith in this production, Desdemona fights for her subjectivity and power in a social dynamic which views her as an object. As Othello’s wife, she speaks boldly to her superiors. She holds all of the men around her accountable for their actions. When one of Iago’s jokes in a battle of wits is a rape joke, her cold stare makes him bend his shoulders in shame. Desdemona is always there, asserting her power, her understanding of the situation, her love for Othello, and yet the men are also always there, perceiving her as an object. After she speaks, she is often sent to the corners of the square stage, where she stands with arms folded.
As Othello practices his boxing, and discusses the possibility of Desdemona sleeping with lieutenant Cassio, his punching bag becomes a stand in for Desdemona’s body – beaten, manipulated and held by Cassio, Iago, and Othello. She exudes joy in her relationships with Othello, and with Emilia. Her song of old willows – which is usually a mournful lament as Emilia dutifully grooms her – is a mirthful Arabic song which Norah Lopez Holden sings in a soulful, throaty voice. The pair laugh at death. They speak plainly of men and their wrongs. They are frustrated and trapped, vulnerable, but still hold back. Desdemona’s death is brutal for its simplicity – she is strangled mid-meditation exercise across her yoga mat. No white negligee, no drawn out writhing and moaning.
Mark Lockyer’s Iago also feels different: he quietly stews in revenge, maliciousness emerging not necessarily from outright soliloquized confession, but from the comments he makes, the jokes he finds funny, the way he treats the women around him. Of course, he is still the plotting murderer, but Lockyer’s quietness made Iago feel more sinister, unpredictable, and immediate, perhaps sometimes to a too-dizzying point.
All of this detail comes from the magnetising performances of the actors, which are the central component. Richard Twyman’s production offers a powerful example of what a contemporary Elizabethan staging, with just a compelling cast on a bare stage in the round, can look like. Fluorescent lights flicker as Iago unveils his plots, and we hear surging electricity. The largest prop is the dining table upon which Emilia and Desdemona dance and sing. The blood, vodka, sweat, and spit that is spattered throughout leaves traces on the stage like paint on a canvas. The final piece is an intricately messy, elegant composition.
Othello is on at Wilton’s Music Hall until 3rd June 2017. Click here for more details.