Othello, the ETG 2018 production, is a play of two halves. Pre-interval, it feels stiff, underdeveloped and strangely under-rehearsed, propped up by a competent Iago. But it vastly improves in the second part of the tragedy, and crescendos towards a satisfying and powerful finale.
The atmosphere was set immediately and competently with an on-stage band, and the conceit of a Jazz bar worked well, with little need for over complicated staging. Unfortunately, the proceedings struck a bad note as the dialogue itself began almost too aggressively and Roderigo wasn’t always comprehensible. As the play went on, his Rik Mayall-esque whining and frenetic energy became more funny and memorable, especially when contrasted with the stiffness of those around him. Aside from an initial few scenes, it was clear that Roderigo was well paired with Iago.
The second half was ridiculously superior to the first, allowing for the cast to shine. If at first it was difficult to deduce whether or not Jordan Julien would crumble under the weight of such a notorious character, his Othello soon grew in strength, becoming threatening, noble and pathetic all at once as he navigated the intrigues of the play. These, of course, culminated in the beautifully conceived, billowing white bed, for which the set designers must be congratulated in making do with what they had. Ella Blackburn’s Desdemona risked looking a little one-note, but grew magnificently post-interval, especially during her scenes with Emilia, where their relationship was touching, humorous and tender in its sincerity. Becky Shepherdson’s Emilia was glorious from beginning to end – a highlight of the production. She brought all the light and shade that such a play requires, and was the only character during the first half who successfully bridged the divide between being both interesting and sympathetic. The relationship between her and Iago was also particularly compelling.
To speak of what went down before the interval isn’t easy, because there were no obvious mistakes. Rather, it felt underwhelming and lifeless at times and, consequently, wasn’t very good, being more like a rehearsal performance where the best scenes were the musical interludes that had little to do with Shakespeare’s text. Iago was the saving grace: neither over elaborate in his speech nor lacking in presence, he carried the production. Bilal Hasna clearly knew his way around a stage and understood where his audience was, which sounds easy but, since so many conversations seemed to happen in the same spot and purely in profile, was not a given.
The main issue is what feels to be a lack of vision or direction, and the fall-out is particularly noticeable when it comes to the supporting cast, where it doesn’t feel as though as much attention had been paid to ensure that they fully embrace their talent or characters. Consequently, they appeared lacking in confidence. While Sara Hazemi showed promise and could certainly turn out a good tune, her duke didn’t always look like she knew what she was doing on the stage. Stiff, staccato and lacking in authority, often in profile, she exhibited Theresa May levels of awkwardness. When contrasted with her Bianca, both felt like caricatures. Emily Beck and Noah Geelan also showed some flair, but they too were perhaps poorly directed and, in their case, differentiated themselves too subtly between the multiple roles they were supposedly interpreting.
If you can get past the weaker beginning, Othello is a production worth seeing. It may also be your one opportunity to see Cassio playing a Casio keyboard, and that’s a jape worth it in itself.