Masks, a bed and a great cast

James Eastwood 16 November 2007

Shakespeare’s Othello is a deeply psychological play: it warrants close scrutiny of characterisation and demands a great deal from its actors. To stage a production in which the cast remains partially shrouded by facial masks thus seems an odd choice at the outset; luckily for us, director Ian Burrows’ decision is actually rather ingenious, and much more than a gimmick.

Besides lending James Morris’ impishly sinister portrayal of ‘Iago’ a menacing face, it befittingly renders ‘Othello’s’ (Ollie Evans) racial difference. On another much more powerful level, it puts the audience in a similar predicament to that of the characters – that is, being unaware of the true intentions of others. As ‘Othello’ peers sharply at ‘Desdemona’ (Anna Hobbiss), willing a confession from her, we are able to read her response no better than him, even though we know the truth all too well.

The physical staging of the play is also accomplished. The use of four free-standing lights enabled for changes of mood that dovetailed effectively with the drama, especially when the actors switched them off and on themselves. And the constant presence of a bed as the only piece of furniture emblematised in stark terms the theme of sex that looms large in the play. It was a slight shame that the well-rehearsed and suitably pitched physical acting was let down by the occasional back to the audience – perhaps an unavoidable problem for a play of this sort in the Corpus Playroom, which otherwise served the production well.

The performances themselves were nearly always strong and often arrestingly powerful. Evans presented a superb ‘Othello’, delivering grand soliloquies and exploiting the rich language of Shakespeare to its fullest. Morris is very well-cast as ‘Iago’ and proves particularly adept at articulating the most pernicious of the villain’s remarks. As ‘Desdemona’, Hobbiss was both convincing and tender at times of high emotion, though sometimes lacked consistency at others. Meanwhile, Imogen Begg’s headstrong ‘Emilia’ was unfailingly impressive and dynamic and Joe Hunter portrayed a well-rounded ‘Cassio’.

It was a pity that Tom Barbour’s undoubted talent was hampered by his assumption of four roles, which required him to caricature a little. This duplicity worked well for ‘Desdemona’ (whose alias was – delightfully – ‘Bianca’) but otherwise marred the production when all the audience had only differently coloured, or sometimes just differently arranged, scarves to distinguish between characters.

Despite these quibbles, Burrows’ Othello is well-conceived and well-executed and does full justice to one of Shakespeare’s finest plays.

James Eastwood