Edinburgh Festival / Day 11: For better or for worse: They're taking criminal liberties with the Bard again. This year's MO: kidnapping repressed characters from Shakespeare's original plays.

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The Independent Culture
Everybody knows the famous scenes of Shakespeare,' Theatre On Podol's Ukrainian director Vitaly Malakhov sighs. 'In Romeo and Juliet, for example, everyone knows the balcony scene. But what is Juliet's nurse doing during the balcony scene? This is what interests me.'

In a year when there are fewer productions of Shakespeare on the Fringe than ever before, Shakespearian characters have broken free of their plays to reappear in new dramas. Theatre On Podol's Iago is a work of their own devising, inspired by Othello but reinstating Iago as a tragic hero. Othello is also the inspiration for The Pool, by the Austrian-based physical theatre company Theater YBY, which imagines that the play's tragic events never happened, and that Desdemona and Othello are celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary. Shakespeare's intentions are further flouted in Stagefright's show, All Cut Up, or How Five Great Women Kept Ophelia Afloat.

In the hands of Theater YBY, directed by the ex-Theatre de Complicite and the Right Size collaborator Micheline Vandepoel, Othello becomes high, clowning comedy. 'We stick to the basic facts of the play, though we've developed it in our style,' explains Caroline Richards, who plays Desdemona as an oversexed hausfrau in a Crimplene two-piece. 'We were interested in the basic situation of jealousy, but Desdemona is usually so young and innocent and it tickled us to play around with that. Through improvisation we found an older, more mature version of their relationship, which gives more substance to Desdemona.'

Improvisation has taken Theater YBY a long way from Othello, and the resulting show, The Pool, owes more to Fawlty Towers than to Shakespeare. It is funniest where it makes the most direct references to the play. The handkerchief is a central motif - Iago performs a series of tricks with it - and shows the beginnings of imaginative playfulness. 'It was because of her that I started in washing machines,' Iago says at one point. 'She was the purest. Every programme is a tribute to her innocence. Every cycle is a declaration of my love for her.' But otherwise The Pool is little more than an excuse for a comedy about sexual jealousy.

An actress's frustration with a Shakespearian heroine was the impulse for Stagefright's All Cut Up. Hot out of university, Lynn Cawley wanted to give Ophelia more presence. An initial act of textual sabotage gave her some of Hamlet's soliloquies. Then the company wanted her to have her say independently of Shakespeare. 'As Ophelia has been subjected to so much analysis and literary criticism over the centuries, it is very hard for her to break out of her text and find her own voice,' explains the director and performer Posy Miller.

They fell upon the surreal idea of giving her advertising slogans in place of dialogue. As a dramatic device it works well, communicating Miller's point that Ophelia has been 'gagged by patriarchy'. It's a bold experiment but, like The Pool, is glaring proof that it's hard to best Shakespeare.

Theatre On Podol's Iago is a more sophisticated enterprise, from a mature company which has been performing Shakespeare for more than a decade. It was an actor, Anatoly Khostikoev, who conceived the idea after playing Othello at the National Theatre in Kiev. The production was not a success, and Khostikoev felt more affinity for Iago than his own character, as the director Vitaly Malakhov explains. 'What we are presenting is principally the play of Othello, but with some pieces cut out and some new situations added. We wanted to look at it from Iago's point of view, to find out what is happening that we normally don't see. It's a way of changing the audience's perspective.'

The most striking departure from Shakespeare is the casting: Khostikoev as Iago is a huge, handsome, charismatic bear of a man, while Vladimir Kouznetsov as Othello is a little, trim bureaucrat. The sympathies of the audience switch palpably to Iago, and from the outset the bias of the play is changed. Add to this a blithe disregard of the racial theme, and the fact that the production takes place in and around the Infirmary Street swimming-pool, and Shakespeare's play is almost unrecognisable.

It's relatively easy for Theatre On Podol to reclaim Iago as a tragic hero, but is it any more than a textual experiment? 'None of us wants to be bad,' Malakhov explains. 'But it happens that characters like Iago come from somewhere. Shakespeare wrote that Cassio is a bad officer, that he's never been at war, he's a drunkard and a womaniser. Yet he is promoted, Iago is not. It seems to me that God is not being fair. Iago tries to make things fair, that's all. There are a lot of reasons why people kill each other, as we know - envy, different religions, love. Perhaps we will never understand each other. But we can try.'

Iago: Infirmary Street Swim Centre (venue 117), Infirmary St (031-557 4963). 10.15pm. 25- 27 Aug, 30-31 Aug, 2 Sept

The Pool: Theatre Workshop (venue 20), 4 Hamilton Place (031-226 5425). 3.30pm. To 3 Sept

All Cut Up: Greyfriars Kirk House (venue 28), Candlemaker Row (031-225 3626). 2.45pm. To 3 Sept

(Photographs omitted)

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