Othello: a fresh take for the 21st century

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a massive fan of West End theatre. Ever since my parents took me to see Joseph in the 1990s, I’ve been hooked, and can still very often be found singing show tunes in the shower. (Don’t try and tell me I’m the only one.)

But I’m also very aware that the West End isn’t the only place to see great plays. And that’s how I ended up last night watching Time Zone Theatre’s production of Othello, which recently transferred from the Rose Playhouse on Bankside to Waterloo East Theatre.

A modern re-telling of Shakespeare’s tragedy, set in the cut-throat world of business, the production focuses its attention on the five core characters – Othello, Iago, Desdemona, Emilia and Cassio. Others are mentioned (or make a brief appearance via Skype), but only five actors ever appear on the simple set, alongside the office furniture that makes up these career-obsessed characters’ entire world.

Othello, Time Zone Theatre at Waterloo East
Photo: Time Zone Theatre

To say this focus makes the play a bit intense is a massive understatement; I’m not sure I blinked for the entire 100 minutes. Director Pamela Schermann’s decision to lose most of the first two acts of Shakespeare’s original text means we’re left with a concentrated version of the story, in which smooth-talking Irishman Iago puts his plan into immediate action, and things escalate really fast. The modern setting translates brilliantly, with Iago angry at being passed over for promotion in favour of the young, inexperienced Cassio. His reaction? Obviously, to convince his boss Othello that his beautiful new wife Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, and so destroy them both in one fell swoop.

Trevor Murphy is fantastic as the slightly unhinged Iago. With his slicked back hair, wild eyes and manic grin, he’s clearly the villain of the piece, and yet there’s something almost childlike about his determination to get what he wants at any cost, and to use anyone he can, even his own wife Emilia, to get him there. You have the feeling he’s long since ceased to see any of them as real people, so focused is he on his own ambitions, and so it’s kind of hard to hate him as much as you know you probably should.

Meanwhile, Othello is on a downward spiral from confident businessman to crazed, jealous lover, so easily tricked by his friend, ‘honest Iago’. While the character’s rapid descent into madness has always struck me as unconvincing (would you really be that easily persuaded that your wife was cheating on you?), James Barnes’ performance is anything but. And his final scenes are particularly haunting, as he stumbles around the stage, almost incoherent with grief and horror at what he’s done.

James Barnes and Charlie Blackwood in Othello at Waterloo East Theatre
Photo: Time Zone Theatre

Special mention to Charlie Blackwood, who made her debut as Desdemona earlier this week. She’s likeable as a happy newly-wed with just a hint of flirtatiousness, and infinitely sympathetic as her desperation grows and she begins to realise how serious her situation is. Ella Duncan really comes into her own as Emilia in the closing moments of the play, when she discovers how her husband used her for his own twisted ends, and Denholm Spurr brings to his Cassio the bewildered air of a young man who’s suddenly found himself playing with the big boys, and losing.

Time Zone’s Othello is dark and unsettling; in a world where people are seemingly willing to do anything for money and success, it doesn’t feel impossible that events like these could really happen. But with incredible performances and a fresh new take on a centuries-old story, it’s well worth the trauma. And you won’t pay West End prices for it, either. Bonus!

Othello is at Waterloo East Theatre until 21st March; if you’re in London, you should go and see it.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend 🙂

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