Reviewed by Flossie Waite
A Unicorn Production
At Unicorn Theatre until 3rd March 2018
For ages 8-12
As I waited, pen and notebook in hand, for the lights to go down and Othello to begin, I worried I wasn’t qualified to review it. Despite having studied Shakespeare at school and at uni, and despite having seen various interpretations of the bard’s work on stage and on screen, it didn’t feel enough: I don’t have an extensive knowledge of the Arden edition and I haven’t seen tons of other versions to meaningfully compare this production with. Unlike most other shows, when it comes to Shakespeare’s work, if I don’t ‘get it’, I immediately assume it’s my fault rather than the production’s. It’s meant to be entertainment and yet it still feels like homework: I was nervous that my understanding and response would be ‘wrong’. Then the play started, and it essentially spent the next hour and fifteen minutes saying: What fucking nonsense. Ignace Cornelissen’s script, translated by Unicorn Theatre’s Artistic Director Purni Morell and ‘inspired by William Shakespeare’, is anti-pretension, taking wonderful liberties with the text, mucking about with the story, and sprinkling in a few pop culture references (Othello’s army love Captain Birdseye fish fingers, for instance, and he drags out the announcement of Cassio’s promotion to lieutenant like it’s an episode of the X Factor.)
The start of Othello and Desdemona’s romance is straight out of an awkward Year 8 school disco: the pair fancy each other at first sight (“I think she’s hot. She has a great arse”) but it’s not until his mates Iago and Cassio encourage him that Othello makes a move, following Beyonce’s advice soon after by putting a ring on it. Beginning as light-hearted comedy and spiralling into violent disaster, Othello always feels relatable and current, like the characters and scenarios have been plucked from your high school classroom. There’s Lawrence Walker’s scheming Iago, that peer-pressuring, all-knowing ‘lad’ at school you used to revere but now realise is an entitled prick; Ronald Nsubuga’s competent but mild-mannered Cassio, the sort of guy who would do all the work for a group project then stay silent as others claimed the credit; Ayoola Smart’s headstrong Desdemona, still badgered and belittled by the men around her despite how empowered she seems; her bigoted, overbearing father, Ricky Fearon’s Brabantio, with control issues that rival this Dad’s recent actions; and Okorie Chukwu’s Othello who, in this all-black cast, is othered by his nationality rather than his race.
Toxic masculinity, displayed in forms the media is currently filled with, fuels this tragedy, and while all of the characters are victims, Desdemona is the ultimate casualty. Iago’s malevolent manoeuvres are rooted in his quest for power, his envy of Cassio, and his sense of entitlement. Desdemona only agrees to marry Othello because his persistence wears her down. The charismatic, sweet-tempered, ‘teddy bear’ Othello is moved to a murderous violence by a sense of ownership, pride, and the refusal to believe a woman’s version of events over a man’s. Though it may seem an ‘abrupt’ conclusion, it also feels terrifyingly credible; that the three young men could easily be boys you know hammers home the fact that the seeds of this behaviour are planted young, the results are normalised, and the outcome can be deadly.
With its simplified story and stripped back set, Unicorn Theatre’s Othello ensures Shakespeare speaks directly to the young people watching and their experience; I’ve rarely seen an audience more engaged.
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