Whenever I see the words “modern” and “Shakespeare” together, I tend to shudder and think of the playwright spinning in his grave.
However, Guy Hollands’ modern retelling of The Bard’s domestic tragedy Othello exceeded my initial cynical expectations by superbly pulling off the fusion of classic Shakespearean dialogue with modern setting and costume.
The play tells the tale of Valiant Othello (Jude Akuwudike) and his transformation into the green eyed monster – envy – much to the delight of the villainous Iago (Andy Clark). In traditional Shakespearean fashion, everyone dies atop the one bed at the end.
Guy Hollands goes beyond the simple politics of race in exploring the traducing of the decent hero by the ignoble Iago. The play opens with its antagonist and the comically pathetic Roderigo bursting onto the stage in suits and modern military gear, shouting their dismay in thick Scottish accents.
My immediate reaction was fear that I’d encountered Shakespeare meets River City but if anything, the Scottish accent adds to Andy Clark’s comic wide boy approach to the role of Iago. There’s something hilarious about hearing “making the beast with two backs” in a Scottish dialect.
Clark captures Iago’s misogynistic, sly and wicked character perfectly, but puts a new and more realistic spin on his mental state. Compared to such great actors as Sir Ian McKellan, who played Iago almost psychotically, Clark adopts a cool, collected, more subtle approach to the character, which in many ways works better, as the normality of Iago makes him much more dangerous.
I must admit, I’m a sucker for the period costume — big hair, beards, sensational dresses, the lot. Perhaps that makes me sound like a philistine, but up until this performance, any Shakespeare production I had seen on stage had been in full decadent dress.
Of course, one of the major factors in making this production modern is the use of contemporary costume. General Othello and Lieutenant Cassio wear dark military clothing, black trousers and grey shirts, whilst the soldiers are in khaki green army gear. The leading lady, Desdemona (Sarah Haworth) sports a short pixie haircut, long cardigans and skinny jeans.
The set — from Philip Witcomb — is essentially two mobile walls, allowing a rapid pace, segueing one scene into the next, whilst the ensemble keeps the action moving steadily. The modest set forces the audience’s attention solely on the actor’s performances.
This is solid Shakespeare, relying on the play’s language and structure rather than any new interpretation. The lack of period costume, extravagance and the minimalist set did not — as I had foolishly presumed — detract from the drama at all. If anything, it just confirmed for me the oft-repeated adage that Shakespeare’s works are indeed timeless.
My only criticism is not about the play or the excellent casting, but the audience. In the very moving and tragic scene in which Desdemona sings her desperate Willow Song, in true “Trigger Happy TV” style the nauseating Nokia symphony struck up, just as Haworth began singing. All that was left was Dom Joly’s entrance with a giant phone shouting “Hello!”
Guy Hollands’ production managed to thwart the preconceptions I had about modern retellings of Shakespeare’s work, making the dialogue and language the tool with which to wow the audience.