Personal and racial tensions, enhanced by questions of gender and sexuality.Johannes Hjorth

The theatre was filled, and every seat within my sight was occupied with an anticipatory audience. But is this rendition truly worth such hype?

The short answer is yes. An absolutely incredible version of Shakespeare’s Othello, it entangles controversies of race, gender and sex into a complex rendition that compels the audience to re-evaluate the importance of gender and sex, love and war, comedy and tragedy within the updated technological Renaissance of Shakespeare’s Venice.

A lover of Shakespeare’s original Othello, I confess to have been a little uncertain and apprehensive about the regendering of central characters that would trigger new homoerotic tensions, bisexual potentialities and the redefine gender-positions in war. Would it pervert Shakespeare’s original tensions? Would it completely destroy his initial intentions? Would it diminish and destroy the quintessence of Shakespeare in the updating of his play? But all of my anxieties were entirely unnecessary. Instead of weakening Shakespeare’s exploration of racial controversy, the complicated manifestations of new gendered, sexual issues enhanced this recreation. The simple regendering of four characters (Othello, Iago, Desdemona and Bianca) instigated dramatic new controversies that entangled pre-existing tension of race with gender, sexuality, identity and mistrust in a thought-provoking, intense and well-managed performance.

As well as balancing new gender roles, the director ensured a skilful balance of humour within the tragic frame as the audience was encouraged to laugh along, to giggle at the renewed sexual undertones that, due to the reversal of specific gender roles, became inherent in Shakespeare’s original verse. I certainly did not expect to be laughing during one of Shakespeare’s ‘big four’ tragic plays. Yet, despite the comic interludes, the tragic atmosphere was retained, void of mockery and sustained effectively through ingenious manipulation and control of audience moods, moving us from laughter to tears within a couple of minutes.

The combination of brilliant direction was enhanced by dramatic sound effects (such as gun-shots that made me jump out of my seat), use of live-music, on-stage singing (notably Oli MacFarlane’s lamenting ‘willow song’ as Desdemona). Well-choreographed on-stage violence with use of false-blood to recreate the bloody stabbing scenes believably could have been more subtle on some occasions but overall there was some fantastic staging.

As well as remarkable directing enabling a coherent delivery of such a newly-complicated performance, the acting was phenomenal. Laura Waldren truly brought to life the cunning, manipulative trickery of Iago, enhancing the audience's simultaneous hatred and admiration of the deceptive cruelty of such a scheming villain. She believably enacted the noble friend and Machiavellian enemy as well as realistically moulding bisexual relations with her wife, Emilia, and conceivable lover, Roderigo. Her interactions with Othello, in particular the scenes of manipulative persuasion and the final scene before the interval, truly recaptured the essence of her multi-layered characterisation.

The portrayal of Othello by Lola Olufemi is also to be commended. She achieves an outstanding recreation of the Shakespearean hero in adaptation into a female role. Moreover she poignantly presents the diverse emotions of love, hatred, anguish, loss, jealousy and disempowerment of the complex, intersubjective character to great effect.

All in all it was an extraordinary performance: thought-provoking as well as enjoyable, phenomenally updated, dramatized, acted, staged, directed - and well-worth the standing-ovation it gained at the end!

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