In our new era of Trump-fuelled prejudice, xenophobia and intrusive masculinity, Richard Twyman’s Othello is a searing reaction that realises the tragedy of every single character – even the master manipulator.

Staged in the round between four black, metal rigs, the performance space jars with the pale, faded, exposed stone and dusty carvings of Wilton’s Music Hall. In similar fashion, the actors have cast off their ruffs for denim and Kevlar, yet still recite the centuries-old words of William Shakespeare’s Othello. These temporal clashes are no accident. They serve as a poignant reminder that whilst we think times have advanced, they tragically have not. Director Richard Twyman’s production posits Othello as a compelling vehicle that forces us to confront how society acts towards both ourselves and ‘the other’.

From the start Twyman is not afraid to make this production uncomfortably immediate: Othello is not just a black man, but he is a Muslim. As the play opens we see Othello shedding his Islamic dress, culture and beliefs as he is baptised into the Christian faith. Othello, played with power and burning intensity by Abraham Popoola, adorns a vulgarly large silver cross – a symbol he does not remove for the rest of the play. To be as high ranking a general as he is, he must wear this emblem to show his willingness to cast off his own muslin identity.

Try as he might, Othello will never be able disassociate himself with ‘the Moor’: Roderigo, here played as the clown by Brian Lonsdale, throws on a turban and a scraggly beard in a grotesque stereotype that apes his general; Othello’s own soldiers perform a lude dance depicting the lovers – Desdemona represented by a boy in a bra and Othello by a man clad in an eerie black gas mask. However, all of this buffoonery culminates in Emelia’s blood curdling cry as she finds Desdemona’s dead body in the bed chamber: ‘The Moor have murdered my lady!’ No-longer the General, just ‘the Moor’, Othello has returned to the state in which he began the play having been denied true assimilation by the prejudices of those around him.

But the play is not just Othello’s tragedy; we feel the potent pain and suffering of every character that graces the stage. Usually portrayed as an arrogant lieutenant and a pawn in Iago’s plotting, Piers Hampton gives us a Cassio we can deeply sympathise with. As Othello hands out his condemnation on Cassio’s drunken actions, Hampton’s face steals the scene as a picture of red-eyed, shamefaced, regret. It was a truly commendable performance that made Cassio’s coming round to Iago’s web-weaving totally believable and all the more harrowing to watch.

More distressing though is the collapse of the touching relationship between Othello and his Desdemona, played by Norah Lopez Holden. Their chemistry leaps off the stage every time Holden leaps into Popoola’s arms and is swept up onto his shoulders.  They are a perfectly mis-matched pair: big and little; loud and soft; virile strength and subtle femininity. However, Holden’s Desdemona is no wilting victim in the face of this masculinity: though she be but little, she is feisty.  When her father grabs her roughly Othello moves to intervene but she keeps him in his place with a simple raised hand and she gets her way often with playful pummelling and charmingly imploring commands. It is therefore totally disturbing when their final interaction mimics the death dance between predator and prey. Whilst Desdemona meditates with her earphones in, oblivious, Othello crouches in front of her psyching himself up for her murder in a display that shows his strength has totally shifted from protecting her to destroying her.

In this production, it is not just Desdemona that is tragically undone by the Moor’s masculinity. In an intriguing move, Twyman choses to cast Iago as the victim of Othello’s obtrusive virility. Mark Lockyer’s Iago walks a fine line between intellectual brilliance and demoralising impotency. Abuzz with feverish movement that portrays his racing thoughts, he may be able to outwit everyone but he could never achieve the domineering strength of Othello; he was not even worthy enough to be his lieutenant.

In this phenomenal production, we are offered a reprimand for society’s idealised paragon of the white, macho, Christian man.  The black man from the minority faith must cruelly cast off his own identity and assimilate to appease the anxieties of those around him. Will he ever be truly accepted despite his best efforts? Every man must acquiesce into the gruff, dangerous portrait of masculinity as to not appear weak and feeble. Will he be happier then, once he aggressively grabs whatever he wants and is called a monster for it? 500 years ago, Shakespeare said no. Tragically, it turns out he was right.

 

★★★★★

Othello will be running at Wilton’s Music Hall until 3rd June 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.