In a theatrical climate full of multiple dramatic devices and on-stage gimmicks it is refreshing to see a company with the conviction to present Othello in its purest form.
This production by Sturdy Beggars is part of a season of shows by the company focusing on the theme of the outsider. There is no set, very little designed costume and even the lighting is pared down to a bare minimum. All this leaves us to concentrate on the language and the action. A brave choice, some may say, as it leaves no room for weakness, no fancy decoration to distract from a mis-fired line or a badly timed moment.
With no stage furniture to get in the way, the performers use the space with energy and dynamism. One gets a feel for the strength and energy in both the physicality of the military men and their relationships with each other. This is helped by the excellently crafted fight scenes, directed by Toby Spearpoint who also gives a steady, believable and endearing performance as Cassio.
Othello, played by Alex Andreou, appears as an outsider to this bawdy raucous world by holding himself with grace and stillness, representing different race through character traits rather than focusing on the plays lines referring to his appearance. Unfortunately this aura of the exotic tends towards haughty pride at times and leads to some choice lines being underplayed. Surprisingly, the theme of 'Outsider' doesn't come across particularly strongly in this piece in the roles of Othello and Iago, considering this is the theme for the company's current season.
Iago, the real lead in this tragic tale, is portrayed by Brendan Jones as the 'lad's lad.' Using his popularity for his own means, but always with a feeling that he could turn violent if this would benefit those means. This is an interesting interpretation of the character, straying away from the usual sinister and calculating portrayals. This Iago is physically as well as intellectually dangerous.
Chris Hughes presents a surprisingly modern Roderigo, Iago's unaware accomplice. His slightly gormless and eager-to-please nature is reminiscent of a sixth form public school boy. Thinking he is one of the elite when really he is being led by the nose, his own naivety eventually leading to his downfall. This role raises the few laughs in this production due to its familiarity to a modern audience.
Coren Fitzgerald gives a convincing performance as Desdemona in the first few acts, but unfortunately weakens towards a slightly flat death scene. The dramatic energy of Emilia, played by Sherry Newton, seems to work in the opposite direction; starting off slightly meek and inoffensive but rising to a powerful and moving climax. She commands the final scene, bringing together the threads of her relationship with Iago and that of Othello and Desdemona and those that run between them all. She does this showing genuine care for her mistress and complexity in her relationship to a misogynist husband.
At three and a half hours, including two intervals, this is not for the faint-hearted. Shakespeare purists will be in their element, but unfortunately with so few theatrical devices it is difficult to stay captivated by the action till the end. The images before us merge into one theatrical event with few visual markers. The parts that really stand out are those where the space is played with inventively or the energy levels really pick up. Perhaps this says more about today's media-savvy society; constantly looking for the clever gimmick, only able to digest information in bite-sized chunks, than it does for the style of the piece. This is an exciting company with energy and confidence and they have created a wonderful opportunity to see Othello with no frills but produced to a high standard using the bare essentials of performance.