I am possibly the best person and the worst person to be writing this review for othellomacbeth. For posterity and ethical full disclosure: my masters’ dissertation was about collage-based or mixed-up textual adaptations of Shakespeare, including my own messy experimentation in such a practice. With this heavy bias of academic critical theory and personal experience filtering my judgment of the production, I must still conclude that the production was certainly a jumble, but not necessarily in any constructive, interesting or interrogative way.
Reconfigured, remixed, reimagined Shakespeare has open-ended possibilities, from complete departures from original text such as with Katie Mitchell’s Ophelias Zimmer (2015) to Phyllida Lloyd’s The Shakespeare Trilogy. Digital tools including video editing and computer programming have made remediation and re-adaptation feel more open and vast than before, and in the recent London-theatre climate of feminist-focused Shakespearean performance, these types of productions seem to be increasing.
So then, with these seemingly limitless combinations of modes of engagement with Shakespearean text, othellomacbeth left me asking, ‘Why these two plays together?’ On the surface, from the title itself, the production seems to suggest a merging or juxtaposition of their narratives. In practice, the production plays out nearly as two separate parts: a truncated, interestingly edited version of Othello, followed by an interval and an edited version of Macbeth. The threads used to link the material together create interesting potential, but sadly doesn’t follow through in an impactful way.
Othello plays out against a metallic backdrop, with harsh fluorescent lighting from above, and a catwalk on which Othello stalks, spying on Cassio and Iago as they hold Desdemona’s handkerchief. Each scene starts with a mechanical whirring noise and blinking fluorescent lights that seem to propel the characters fast-forward into their next blocked marks. The space feels tight and restricted, and without any other set pieces and few changes in lighting, the characters feel placeless. In tightening the play, the consequences of the passing of time are revealed: Sandy Grierson hilariously performs Cassio’s drunkenness one night, and the next morning appears to Desdemona sporting dark sunglasses, a husky voice and clearly a nasty hangover.
In one of the production’s most fascinating textual shifts, Iago’s soliloquies and evil confessions have been completely cut. Without the framework of his scheming, Samuel Collings convincingly portrays Iago as a seemingly slimy character who is effective at confirming what characters believe they already know, but without any motive the audience can see (however, the difficulty is not seeing his motive if you are already familiar with the play). Without Iago, and without textual references to Othello’s ‘blackness’ and ‘Moor’ identity, Othello’s jealousy and violence comes across as that of an abusive husband who needed only a gleam of an excuse to act out his rage. Ery Nzaramba plays this Othello with a frightening rage, with twitchy gestures and movements.
All of this does effectively set the audience up for the transition into Macbeth. Othello’s tragedy becomes Desdemona’s tragedy. Kirsten Foster portrays Desdemona first as bold, then trapped, then steeled. Her murder is tactfully and hauntingly heard but not seen, and when she emerges next, it is as one of the three wyrd sisters in Macbeth, preparing to exact revenge on men who have wronged women. She wears the same blue dress as she did in life, but now she also has the bruises around her neck that evidence her murder. She is joined by Bianca who hands her and the brutally murdered Emilia army fatigues as a call to action. Emilia’s observation, ‘Yet we have some revenge’ drives them forward.
It’s an exciting idea to set up the narrative of one Shakespeare play as a prequel to another, and particularly to do so through a feminist narrative of women’s agency and a satisfying revenge plot. But as the second act commences, the wyrd sisters play a minimal role, always watching but never participating. They haunt scenes, and occasionally the actors double to play tertiary roles, but Macbeth’s own downfall feels entirely independent of their existence. Indeed, Macbeth’s narrative seems murky and garbled throughout, and the pacing similarly feels winding and unclear, much unlike the previous act. The set appears similarly lost: the metallic backdrop of Othello is lifted to reveal a deep stage set in black and white grids, with the occasional object – a single tree, a tank of water, a rocking chair – placed throughout. While the tank gets dirtied with more and more blood and Lady Macbeth sits infirm in her rocking chair for the second half of the play, the rest of the space and objects seem unused.
Caroline Faber plays Lady Macbeth with a softness and despair that is haunting and disarming, and her narrative is given more text: instead of an off-stage suicide, she speaks Othello’s speech that he says before murdering Desdemona: ‘Tis the cause’, before taking her own life. Macbeth’s own ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day’ speech is given to Bianca. It’s satisfying to give the female characters these poignant speeches. But even with this clever insertion, the relationship between Othello and Macbeth feels hollow and mismatched; why not have Desdemona become Beatrice, or Isabella? What does it mean to have a woman seeking revenge watch a man fall by his own hubris? If it’s catharsis that Desdemona and the audience seeks, can it truly be found in Macbeth? In its current state, othellomacbeth is a teasing spark of this production’s potential. If only it embraced these overlapping moments more, and let characters give fuller, new voices to their feelings by borrowing language.
othellomacbeth runs at Lyric Hammersmith until 3rd November. More information here.