"A master class in treachery"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 10/05/17

A Muslim wedding ceremony at the start of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s ‘Othello’, directed by Richard Twyman, drags this timeless play into the present day, throbbing with raw, bloody references to the turbulence, brutality and divisiveness spreading across the globe. The superb, minimalist set holds no comfort or hiding place as Iago‘s poison contaminates and destroys. Fear of the ‘other’ offers motive for malice; the excellent programme notes underpin the religious and racial tensions of Shakespeare’s times. For me, as a member of the largest ‘other’ group – women - the play’s dark, banal misogyny is as disturbing as ever. The need to understand men’s fear of women, so ably supported by so-called sacred texts, has informed much of my thinking about this play. (Leviticus 27:3-4)

Congruency of character and believable motivation matter to me. Why does Iago hate Othello, and why does Othello fall for his treachery? Mark Lockyer’s outstanding Iago gives a masterclass in betrayal and duplicity. He invites us to revel in his machinations – and oh, they are beguiling, with a dark, glittering allure. Does anger about being passed over for promotion fuel his hatred of Othello? Does he really think Othello screwed Emilia? Does he particularly want the wealth he gulls from Brian Lonsdale’s well-observed, hapless Roderigo? Is he in love with his own brilliant ability? For the duration of the play we accept his motives, watching with horror as the knots tighten round his prey.

Iago plays Abraham Popoola’s magnificent, flawed Othello, (sweet, brave. open, big-hearted, naive and beautiful) like a fish. He picks away at the fears men have around women’s sexual and reproductive power, destroying a man who is everything he is not. What is it with men and the sacred sodding brotherhood? (I reference what the Big Bang Theory inelegantly describes as ‘bros before hoes’).

I have never seen such an enchanting Desdemona. Norah Lopez Holden is fresh, witty and fun, rendering her murder all the more terrible. Iago’s genius lies in turning her virtues into vices. Piers Hampton’s satisfyingly complex Cassio is similarly traduced and the tragic outcome becomes inevitable.

Katy Stephen’s woman-of-the-world Emilia is a rewarding role and Katy does it justice. She appeared to have two moments of revelation about the handkerchief and her husband’s part in events; the second I fully understood, but not so much the first.

This powerful production, with its terrific cast, pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. The after-battle scene with the soldiers is one of the most shocking things I have ever watched; had the whole production been like that the impact would have been lost, but the direction is disciplined; informed by integrity and intelligence. A stunning storm at sea showcases the skills of lighting and sound designers Matthew Graham and Giles Thomas. I was aware of great subtlety in the sound quality – what seemed to be silence sometimes throbbed with tension. I’m unsure about the use of the microphone; the amplified speeches seemed random and the volume excessive.

The themes of ‘Othello’ resonate long after leaving the theatre. The production continues at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre for the rest of this week and I highly recommend it.

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