Othello at Union Theatre
Phil Willmott’s interpretation of Othello is a bit of a mixed blessing. There is much to be adored here – brilliant lighting design by Zoe Burnham, beautiful sound design by Julian Starr, amazing set design by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust – but the actual production itself at the best of times adds nothing to the plot, and in some moments even works directly against it. In the end, it’s a marvellous rendition of the Shakespearean classic with some extremely powerful acting – but only despite the idea itself.
In this interpretation, the audience is to presume that the setting takes place in India during the British occupation, with Othello (Matthew Wade) being an Indian officer recruit who assumes the rank of general and Cassio (Jerome Dowling) being an army chaplain. Iago (Rikki Lawton), meanwhile, is an English orderly. To make this far stretch more believable, Willmott rewrites individual sections to fit more with the setting; as such, the events alluded to are from the British occupation rather than the war between the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire.
The trouble is that the rewrite (rather than interpretation) often goes against the source material. Othello is shown to be detached from his peers while they pray in church – and yet he refuses to kill Desdemona (Carlotta De Gregori) before she has prayed for God’s forgiveness so that she doesn’t go to hell, and Bianca (Megan Grech) somehow acquires a gun towards the end to hold Iago at gunpoint. Several instances feel completely disjointed and unfit for Shakespeare’s vision, such as in the conclusion, where Iago is put on trial for his crimes.
But the staging is still amazingly powerful because everything else works perfectly well. The pacing is executed in a pristine fashion; the cast is completely convincing from start to finish – with Wade, Lawton and Gregori being some of the best choices for their characters in recent years – and the rendition of individual instances are borderline genius.
As such, Willmott’s Othello is still a must-see. Given the overall strength of the show it’s a huge pity that the reimagining of the setting just doesn’t quite fit – if it wasn’t for that, this would be one of this century’s strongest productions of the piece. As it is, it’s still dazzling and guarantees a night of fantastic entertainment.
Photo: Scott Rylander
Othello is at Union Theatre from 13th March until 6th April 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.