In Ola Ince’s intimate, powerful production, Shakespeare’s study of envy, racism and misogyny is transposed with depressing ease from 16th century Venice to the contemporary Metropolitan Police. If one bold concept weren’t enough, Ken Nwosu’s DCI Othello also wrestles at moments of high emotion with an identically-clad Subconscious Othello (Ira Mandela Siobhan).
Both ideas refresh the play, and both also require awkward workarounds. Fortunately, the show has a steely, relentless pace despite its three-hour running time, and it is acted with depth and conviction by the core cast.
Until this theatre’s usual candle lighting is deployed halfway through, the stage is illuminated by glaring crime-scene tripod lamps and torches. Offensive descriptions of Othello crackle from police radios. The language is selectively tweaked: he’s a “guvnor” not a general, his wife Desdemona is made in Chelsea and there are on-the-nose references to stakeouts and drug deals.
The atmosphere is oppressively masculine. The wife of Othello’s scheming sergeant Iago, Emilia (Charlotte Bate, superb), is on the squad, and expected to be one of the lads when it comes to banter and booze. But the toxic miasma corrodes the men too: it’s made Ralph Davis’s plausible, matey Iago madly jealous and forced Othello to repress his fury at countless unguessable slurs and slights.
Nwosu has a generic London accent, and the verse sounds all the fresher for his plain-spokenness: he is chilling in his later wrath, wrenching in his regret. Poppy Gilbert’s demure Desdemona shows flashes of fire, arresting his arm when he tries to strike her a second time and warning: “I have not deserved this.”
Ira Mandela Siobhan develops an eloquent physical language for Subconscious Othello, though the character morphs strangely into something like a conscience. Anyway, it’s really quite profound watching Shakespeare’s tragic hero literally doing battle with himself.
There are lots of nice touches here. An opening montage showing the main couple’s courtship is balanced by another, harshly lit by stabbing flashlights, as Othello falls out of love. He and Desdemona pray together: shortly after, he kneels with Iago to plan her murder. In 2021, Ince inserted statistics and trigger warnings into her Romeo and Juliet in the Globe’s main outdoor space. Here, the violence feels shockingly brutal and unmediated.
A few things rankle. Ince has substituted “you” for all the play’s archaic “thous” and “thees” but has jarringly left in every “didst” and “saidst”. Why go halfway? Renell Shaw’s music is overemphatic, particularly in the woozy sections underlining Othello’s derangement, though the final muffled drumbeat and piano lament have a solemn, inevitable force. Sam Swann’s Roderigo would be funny enough without the comedic disguises.
I was compelled throughout, though, and believed in Othello’s duping and his descent into madness, which isn’t always the case. I have an ex-cop friend who claims the Met is not as bad as the media paints it, but Ince’s vision feels horribly credible.
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