Originally written for Whats On Stage
It ends with a gut punch. Richard Twyman stages one of western literature’s most brutal scenes with terrifying crystalline clarity that dares its audience to continue watching but left many, including myself, unable to look at the carnage unfolding in front of them. The image of the towering, vengeful, fooled Moor standing over his broken lover will be etched on my retinas for years. It is just one of many powerful moments in Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory’s wonderful production of Othello.
No one had his finger on the pulse of contemporary zeitgeist as much as the Bard of Avon and Othello’s themes are still depressingly relevant. It may not be the colour of his skin that marks this Othello out as different but his rolling out of the mat to perform Salah prayers does. He’s ‘an-other’ leader at the top of the pack, unable to partake with his lads on tour regiment and his position is as easy to topple as a pyramid of cards. The ‘other’ is constantly placed on pedestal. Hayat Kamille’s Bianca is held up by the men as a sexy exotic creature until an assassination attempt occurs and her qualities now see fingers pointed, accusations thrown and the word ‘whore’ bandied about. These are people defined by those around them as caricature and as nationalities rather than individual three dimensional flesh and blood. Sound familiar?
The catalyst for the tragedy is the ensign Iago, here an easy figure to overlook. He is awkward to his surroundings, as much an outsider to the world he finds himself in as the one he tries to overthrow. It is marked by his grey hair in a world of youth, it is marked in his awkward dangling hand that he proffers for a handshake before being grasped in a bear hug by the general who he soon will betray. Mark Lockyer is the genial face of malice, an ugly soul costumed in normality. Later as Othello’s mind is turned into believing his love has betrayed him, Lockyer brings him in for his own hug like a python consuming his pray. It is a chilling, brilliant turn played with terrifying good cheer and dead eyed remorselessness.
Recent RADA graduate Abraham Popoola has two thirds of Othello down pat; he is both playful gentle giant, prone to scooting the tiny frame of Norah Lopez-Holden’s Desdemona into his massive arms, and terrifying vengeful lover scorned. But he doesn’t feel like a leader among men, a poet and a warrior – the great man that is brought down. This isn’t helped by some garbled speaking on press night though it does feel like a performance that will grow over the course of the run.
Lopez-Holden is a girl growing up fast in a distant land with her lover, her flirting with Cassio (Piers Hampton) nothing more than playfulness, her protectiveness towards her lover even after he has smote her still so sadly relevant. The wonderful Katy Stephens as Emilia shows that the foolishness of love doesn’t just reside in the young, her own blind feelings for Iago implicate her in the tragedy as well. There is the occasional over-reliance on throbbing orange lights to mark the soliloquies that proves more a distraction than revelation but this is the one misstep in Twyman’s terrific work. It is a rich night of theatre with an ending that even after 400 years blindsides you and argues persuasively that Othello may be Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.
Othello runs at the Tobacco Factory Theatre until 1 April.