For some unaccountable reason, Othello has never quite established a place in the pantheon of great Shakespearean tragedies. On the surface, its content would seem to tick all the boxes: a flawed hero, a smiling villain, a doomed love story, deceit, treachery, intrigue, ambition and copious amounts of blood-letting. But its lovers are neither star-crossed nor thwarted by the gods, their happiness is cut short neither by witches nor ghosts nor airy spirits. On the contrary, their tragedy is wrought entirely by the mundane frailties of human nature.
Could it be then that the plot is too earthbound, too straightforward and sharply defined? Are there too many abrupt changes of mind and attitude for the unfolding tragedy to be believed? Are Othello and Desdemona too easily duped by Iago’s malevolence? Does its essentially domestic nature in some way render the storyline inferior to those involving wars, political coups and assassinations, power struggles in the highest echelons of society? And then, of course, there is Shakespeare’s bold but problematic creation of the central character of the Moor himself.
Director Lisa May has pinpointed the humanity and contradictions, which constitute the heart and soul of Othello. In this tightly focused, dramatically claustrophobic production, she shines a piercing light into the twists and turns of human behaviour - our endlessly frustrating propensity to act in haste, ignore sound advice and ultimately take the wrong course of action.
With a large dash of theatrical panache and logistical jiggery-pokery, script adapter Patrick J. O’Reilly has made a significant contribution to May’s vision by cleverly cutting substantial chunks of text from the original without damaging dramatic themes or narrative flow. He has crafted a structure whereby six actors deliver the original cast of fourteen named characters plus a whole host of random others. And among those six, only two take on multiple roles, both with credible assurance.
The action takes place in a single interior location, whose design and lighting (by Diana Ennis and Sean Paul O’Rawe respectively) create a suffocating but seductive chiaroscuro effect. No light of day penetrates the black walls and drapes enclosing the household, which Othello and Desdemona have made the base for their happy marriage. The outside world, its conflicts and battles and teeming inhabitants, is portrayed by a multitude of scarlet ribbons and Commedia masks, hanging from the dark backdrop. Inside, five white wooden frames are balletically manoeuvred to form doorways and alcoves, windows and rooms where all manner of eavesdropping, whispering, rumour mongering and scheming take place.
In closing out the world beyond and directing our total attention inside, this clear, uncluttered production winds us into a series of scenarios with which a modern day audience will be all too familiar.
The days are thankfully gone when the lead actor was requested to ‘black up’ in order to play the Moor. Here, as the lights go up, Stanley Browne’s Othello registers as a towering, lumbering presence, the very essence of a decent, honest, uncomplicated man, whose recent marriage to the diminutive, sweet-natured Desdemona (Clare McMahon) clearly fills him with joy. While he may be completely comfortable in his skin, others are considerably less so. When, in the opening scene, Iago tells Brabantio that his daughter has married, it is interpreted not as an occasion for happiness but for shame:
“You have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.”
At the other end of the play, when the simmering suspicion about his wife’s fidelity reaches boiling point, there is something deeply chilling about Othello’s gigantic figure gripping and shaking the compliant Desdemona like a rag-doll before strangling her in a fit of uncontrollable jealous passion.
Alongside Browne’s genial, gullible warrior hero, Nick Devlin is the perfect foil, his loose-limbed, stealthy Iago as cunning and deadly as a snake. His hissing delivery emphasises the propensity for spite and duplicity which form an integral part of his nature, though a tendency towards a downward vocal inflection results in some important words being lost. Still, each time he is described by his duped victims as "the honourable Iago", one’s blood runs cold at the thought of his real intentions.
Terence Keeley introduces a welcome touch of humour into proceedings, especially in his comic portrayal of the whore Bianca. Daithi Mac Suibhne is entirely credible in the somewhat thankless role of the earnest Cassio, while Dagmar Doring beautifully underplays Iago’s needy wife Emilia, whose decision to betray her husband finally seals her fate.
This absorbing revival soundly delivers a new Othello for our times, raising the play’s profile to long-overdue recognition and clocking up Bruiser’s most effective production in a long time.
Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based arts journalist, critic and screenwriter, who also reviews for The Irish Times and The Stage.