Othello, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, review: Murder by candle light

Ellen McDougall makes debut at Shakespearean winter theatre with up-to-date Moorish play

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The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse could have been made for this very production of Othello. This candle-lit tragedy of distrust, is the last production of the winter theatre’s 2016-17 series, and is directed by the newly appointed artistic director of Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre, Ellen McDougall. It sits well in the intimate Jacobean playhouse, where her original version of the story of the green-eyed Moor leads to a duo of murders. 

The production is lit only with candles and a heavily blood-stained “contaminated” bed takes prominence, never leaving the stage. Cleverly used handheld candles illuminate faces and the entire play thrives on the darkness, which seeps into Othello, where the play’s main theme of jealously takes over him and the intensity of the small space aids theatrical emotion, creating a continuity between on and offstage.  

Opening with players singing a rendition of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” from the top balcony becomes haunting with the lyrics: “It’s all for you/ everything  I do/ I tell you all the time/ Heaven is as place on earth with you”, which tellingly sets the scene of Desdemona’s confirmed love, affection and devotion to her husband. Yet, Othello is the only one not to see that. 

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Thalissa Teixeira strikes a valiant figure as Emilia (Marc Brenner)

But what sets this play apart, is McDougall’s decision that Cassio – the Moor’s lieutenant – is Michelle, instead of Michael, played by Joanna Horton. And with it brings heightened eroticism of a same-sex relationship with mistress Bianca (Nadia Albina), as well as the fictitious one, Iago – played by Sam Spruell – is scheming between Cassio and Desdemona. 

Iago’s hatred for the Moor is rooted in him being overlooked for promotion to lieutenant. He begins to try and ruin the relationship between the lovers by telling Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, that a “black horse is topping” his daughter right at this very moment. 

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Kurt Egyiawan as Othello and Sam Spruell as Iago (Marc Brenner)

Othello is instantly an outsider because of his race. But instead of conveying animalistic qualities, Kurt Egyiawan plays a collected and precise Othello in the beginning scenes.

Spurrel’s Iago is a vicious liar until the end, with true Machiavellian traits. He shows no remorse in acting as the devil on the Moor’s shoulder feeding him lies about his wife’s supposed debauched affair, painting Desdemona wrongly as an adulterer. 

While his wife, Emilia (Thalissa Teixeira) – although complicit in the stealing of Desdemona’s handkerchief – is physically abused and is killed by her husband. She breaks the silence of women and valiantly uses her voice to defend Desdemona’s innocence, in a passionate and convincing scene, where she names Moor as a murderer in some of her final words.

In the end, Desdemona’s downfall is purely being a doting woman, although Klamar is feisty in her retort to prove herself innocent to her husband. It becomes a witch hunt, to kill a woman without a fair trial, or even an ounce of real evidence beyond hearsay. 

‘Othello’ runs until 22 April

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