Othello is a play that does not work if there is a lack of passion, and, sadly, that is exactly what this production is missing. Time Zone Theatre’s previous Shakespeare adaptations have received rave reviews, and although the transportation of Othello into the world of a modern-day office is intriguing, it does not quite pull it off.
This is not to say the production does not have its moments. The action opens with Iago (Trevor Murphy) asleep on the table, a dishevelled contrast to the sharp suits of the rest of the company that soon arrive. The action is set up using voiceovers and tableaus, Iago the only character free to move in between the frozen characters. This gives him an immense sense of power, something which continues throughout the rest of the play. Murphy’s Iago is savage and snidely witty, the true standout point of the production, although he does occasionally risk sliding into caricature. He sits apart from the rest of humanity, a puppet master who has control over everything – including the background music, although the near-constant presence of that begins to become irritating fairly quickly.
Othello and Desdemona (James Barnes, Samantha Lock) largely fail to bring the emotional depth the play requires: neither he nor Desdemona feel like they are hit with an all-consuming passion that merits the turning away from convention and, eventually, murder. Barnes’ brooding silences onstage do demonstrate a menacing stage presence, and his descent into madness and horrified realisation after Desdemona’s death are hauntingly well played. It may be that the cuts made to the play – reducing the audience’s understanding of the background of racial prejudice and the struggles Othello and Desdemona had to undergo in order to get married – have also reduced the actors’ ability to truly amp up the passion until the last moment.
It is not until the final scene that the ghostly remains behind the actors are used to their full dramatic effect. The Rose Playhouse was Bankside’s first Tudor theatre, now a half-excavated archaeological site, and when it is lit up with zig-zagging red LEDs it is a truly striking backdrop to the action. Othello is demonic in the red light, pacing around Desdemona’s body as she lies illuminated in the spotlight. Emilia’s (Ella Duncan) grief over Desdemona’s death, and her mischievous humour elsewhere in the play, add some much-needed liveliness to the production.
In the last moments both Iago and Othello are broken, hollow-eyed shells. In a production that largely fails to tug on your heartstrings this scene is a reminder of the real power of Shakespeare’s play, and the catastrophic fallout it brings.