I do like all theatrical experiments that breathe new life into the classics and make them more relevant for our time. I am a big fan of audacious Shakespearean adaptations in particular – but not othellomacbeth. This new production – which offers in succession condensed versions of two famous tragedies – fails in almost every aspect. Some parts are miscast. The dramaturgy does not make much sense. The sound effects are overdone.
It is obvious that the directors and dramaturge’s intentions were commendable and much welcome – especially cutting Shakespeare’s text to show the lives of female characters more profoundly and tragically. Unfortunately as a result, the male characters come across as nothing but abusive husbands, drunkards, and murderers, even flawed but truly tragic Othello. The pace of the production is so fast that there is no time to savour Shakespeare’s poetry. It is Shakespeare reduced to something small and insignificant, as the capital-less title suggests.
But let us start with the positives, of which there are few. One of them is a very impressive stage design by Basia Binkowska. The production starts in front of a huge metal curtain, which creates forbidding atmosphere and also chimes with the political significance of the Iron Curtain dividing Europe until 1989, surely no accident as the stage designer is Polish. This is an interesting visual reading of Shakespeare’s Venice and Cyprus, which are lands at war with Turkey. In addition to the metal curtain there is also a high walkway hanging over the stage where the first words of the performance are sung rather than uttered. A black young woman (Bianca) laments fates of women, a musical motif that is interspersed throughout the performance (with one line recurring a lot: ‘Oh Sister when you gonna learn. Ain’t it always about the man’). It is a great way to start a performance of a famous classic with a marginal character and give them a strong voice, but this idea is sadly underdeveloped. From then on we are treated to clownish Brabantio (making angry faces at Desdemona), youthful Othello (suspicious almost from the start), and thinly developed conflict between him, Iago and Cassio (the latter two have actually some chemistry, which cannot be said about many othellomacbeth characters). The only good dramaturgical choice is having Emilia almost in every scene of Othello, an often silent observer of all the abuse Desdemona has to endure, but always vocal when the opportunity arises. Yet the portrayal of Shakespearean women is lacking something – perhaps the cuts did not go far enough, or maybe more stage time was needed for their voices to really stand out.
The biggest downside of the adaptation is that it is not a mash-up but two condensed plays staged one after another. The link between the two, the moment when Othello morphs into Macbeth, is quite good, but in the long run just does not make sense. Dead Desdemona and Emilia and very much alive Bianca become the three witches bringing about the fall of Macbeth, played by rather good Sandy Grierson who performs the part of Cassio in Othello. Othello is now Banquo and Iago is Macduff. If the wandering female ghosts of Othello are in Macbeth to revenge themselves on men who wronged them, it is a crude framing device that somehow stereotypes women in the end – something along the line ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ and such. What is worse, the portrayal of Lady Macbeth, one of the strongest female characters in Shakespeare’s canon of plays, lacks passion and energy. In the end she is slumped in a chair, looking very sad for good half hour doing nothing.
I think better stage movement and better direction would help the ensemble greatly. In the end, the actors who actually move round the stage and have something to do draw your attention, especially Iago and Macbeth. However, my favourite was full-of-spunk Bianca – Kezrena James made her modern and relevant, someone you can relate to. But in general, there is too much standing around and pondering in othellomacbeth and not enough life in the characters in this production.
It is a shame that this ambitions and well-meaning theatrical experiment did not work. We do not see that many of them in the UK theatres, and that is one of the reasons to see this production. What will stay with me is the poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning cited by Desdemona at the end of the performance. I wish this production was bolder in introducing more un-Shakespearean poetic touches like this one:
I THANK all who have loved me in their hearts,
With thanks and love from mine. Deep thanks to all
Who paused a little near the prison-wall
To hear my music in its louder parts
Ere they went onward, each one to the mart’s
Or temple’s occupation, beyond call.
But thou, who, in my voice’s sink and fall
When the sob took it, thy divinest Art’s
Own instrument didst drop down at thy foot
To hearken what I said between my tears, …
Instruct me how to thank thee! Oh, to shoot
My soul’s full meaning into future years,
That they should lend it utterance, and salute
Love that endures, from Life that disappears!