Theatre: Desdemona deserved it...

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The Independent Culture
IN DESDEMONA, Paula Vogel's Belle de Jour-flavoured new play, the heroine is everything Othello suspects and more. Not content with sleeping her way through the court, Desdemona (Sophie Walker) stands in for Bianca (Rebecca Jackson) at the whorehouse simply for the thrill of sex with men from a thousand different cultures.

She berates her servant Emilia (Alexa Kesselaar) with all the tantrums of the wealthy Sloane and adores Bianca for being a New Woman - economically independent and free to give herself to any man she chooses. But when Bianca comes to pay Desdemona her cut, the cheeky working girl punctures the illusion by declaring her desire to marry Cassio, retire from the game and raise children, stating in her rich cockney patois that "all any woman wants is a smug [a husband] and kids".

When she produces the handkerchief given to her by Cassio, Desdemona pounces on it as the one she has lost. Bianca's dreams of marrying and settling down vanish as she concludes that Cassio is amongst Desdemona's bed-head notches.

At this point, the play could draw to a close. It has made its point about how girls of means with private education can mythologise the seedier side of life (what might be called Band of Gold Syndrome). Vogel has set her cat amongst the feminist pigeons by suggesting that all women really want is a man and a family (a suggestion not too far from that implied by the antics of post-feminist icon Bridget Jones and her sisters). And having taken a sideways look at Shakespeare's play, there is really no need to embark on the long, winding and anticlimactic path to reinsert Desdemona back into the original story. We all know what's going to happen - or should do from the Othello synopses littering the foyer - and the meandering end therefore serves to satisfy only those with an obsessive tidiness and dislike of loose ends.

Desdemona is rich in intellectual conceit for an audience so inclined - we can give a knowing snigger when Desdemona describes herself as "the sort that will die in bed". But director Kate Brooke does not present the comedy with a gentle touch.

Sophie Walker's performance veers between Felicity Kendall on speed and Miranda Richardson's Queenie in Blackadder. She is a spoilt brat, and most people would happily wring her neck even without the incentive of blood-curdling jealousy and an incriminating handkerchief. Meanwhile, Rebecca Jackson's Bianca is a near-parody of Oliver Twist's pal Nancy, a solid cockney girl with the bellow of a fishwife. It is a credit to Ms Jackson that she can conjure up pathos in such a cartoon caricature as she bemoans the loss of the idyllic cottage to which she and Cassio were to escape.

The problem with presenting such material in the style of a cheap farce, rather than allowing the humour in the lines to do the work, is that it all too easily releases the genie of idiot laughter. Suggest to an audience that this is burlesque, and they will hoot like owls in a nitrous oxide factory at anything. It all tends to obliterate any of the work's finer and more contemplative points, reducing a play with potential to a cheap slapstick cartoon with the depth of a Croft and Lloyd sitcom.

Runs until 5 September. Box office: (01225) 448844