The Abbey joins in the Shakespeare 400 celebrations with its first ever production of Othello and it’s a vibrant cracker
Respected soldier Othello (Peter Macon) has secretly married Desdemona (Rebecca O’Mara), to the dismay and fury of her father Brabantio (Peter Gowen) when he is roused with the news by failed suitor Rodrigo (Gavin Fullam). But the support Brabantio initially receives from his peers on the Council; Lodovico (Barry Barnes), Gratiano (Michael James Ford), and the Duke (Malcolm Douglas); evaporates when they realise his righteous indignation is directed at Othello, for the Ottomans are moving against Cyprus, and Othello is Venice’s indispensable man. Little does Othello realise that Cyprus will turn out to be a psy-ops front rather than a naval engagement. For despite being governed by his friend Montano (Des Cave) Cyprus will prove no home as his ensign Iago (Marty Rea) whispers poison in his ear in an attempt to usurp Cassio (John Barry O’Connor) as Othello’s lieutenant.
Director Joe Dowling seems to dispense with Coleridge’s celebrated ‘motiveless malignity’ of Iago for a fascinating interpretation; that Iago himself is acting throughout under the spell of the same species of madness he casts over Othello. While he is resentful of being passed over for promotion, his true anger seems to circle around his wife Emilia (Karen Ardiff) having betrayed him with the Moor. Iago’s cold treatment of Emilia thus seems a parallel to Othello’s rough abuse of Desdemona – having been turned against her. And his wail at the result of his handiwork adds to this impression; a man suddenly waking from a fugue state horrified at what he’s done. Macon’s performance is extremely impressive, and surprising. Instead of ‘the noble Moor’, dignifying every syllable, he gives us a soldier whose early scenes of camaraderie are rambunctious bordering on rowdy, and whose descent into madness involves howling, screaming, and an epileptic fit. Othello’s modesty about his linguistic skills can seem farcical given his poetic eloquence, but here it signals insecurity because English is his second language, as the American Macon delivers Shakespearean verse with some acutely noted notes and flourishes of sub-Saharan African speech. Rea, in a rare occurrence, is asked to act in his own Northern Irish accent, and this also strips away posturing. Instead of grandstanding in his own villainy in RP, Iago is a street-corner slouch of bored contempt and hidden spite; in which each soliloquy seems to expose a man trapped in his own world of hatred – given memorable visual expression by Sinead McKenna’s lights spotlighting a wordless conversation between Cassio and Desdemona while Iago creeps closer to them, railing at them, lost in solipsistic hate.
Desdemona’s passivity works best as a sheltered girl’s naivety about the world, but O’Mara is too old for the role. Desdemona is thus infuriatingly clueless, but O’Mara does gives full impact to James Cosgrove’s fight direction by selling one of the most shocking stage-punches I’ve seen. Ardiff is a highlight in support making Emilia a beacon of common sense and proto-feminist, but rendering Bianca (Liz Fitzgibbon) as an O’Casey streetwalker is a cheap and mean gag. Dowling’s staging is less naturalistic than previous returns from Minneapolis like 2003’s All My Sons or 2011’s The Field. Indeed Act 3’s celebrated temptation scene takes place against what becomes a blood-red backdrop of ocean upon which vast shadows are cast as Iago corrupts Othello. Before that Venice has been represented by a massive suspended plaque, and as Othello descends into psychosis the walls almost literally close in on him, as the ocean backdrop is truncated by successively closing over more and more of the wooden panelling of Riccardo Hernandez’s set which is identical to the Abbey’s off-stage decor.
It remains bizarre to have chosen this play because of one line, which elicited sustained tittering heedless of the dead and maimed littering the stage during its delivery, but Dowling affords the Bard’s tragedy of jealousy a bold debut.
Othello continues its run at the Abbey Theatre until the 11th of June.