Review: HT Theatre’s Othello ****

Following a successful run of Measure for Measure at Baron’s Court Theare last year, HT Theatre returns with their unique take on another of Shakespeare’s plays: Othello.

In this production, Othello is played by Kristen Alminta, who has first hand experience of war having served in the Bermuda Army. With the other roles traditionally cast, this means that HT Theatre’s Othello is an openly gay, black woman in the army. This provides an interesting take and reading of the play, raising questions about gender and sexuality. Set in the modern day it’s more reflective of society today, as the other characters’ opinions of Othello do not seem negative in terms of race, as in the original text. It is instead her sexuality rather than her race or gender which is treated at somewhat of a stigma by certain characters, Ludovicio in particular and to some extent Othello herself:

Othello

My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:
She swore, in faith, twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful:
She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d
That heaven had made her such a man

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Despite being a tragedy, director Jo Greaves creates moments of levity from the opening scene. As the play opens, we see the soldiers relaxing during some time off, and relief from service. Music plays, beers are brought forth, and everyone has a good old dance. I’m normally against making additions to the classics, but as well as being hilarious this does serve a narrative purpose: it gives context to the relationship between characters and sets up the dynamics at the heart of the play. Iago here is one of the boys, drinking, laughing, and is obviously well ingratiated into this troop. Other productions tend to portray Iago as the ‘ancient’ outsider, more of a silent observer than a part of society. But we must remember that Iago is an integral, accepted member of this troop, Othello’s ‘ancient,/A man…of honest and trust’, which sets up why the Moor is so trusting and believes him. This is a clever move on Greaves’ part, further reinforced when we consider that in the same scene, it is Roderigo who is ostracized and established as the outsider.

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With this new approach to the character of Othello, it’s a lot to consider when taking on the part, a challenge which Kristen Alminta rises to and puts her own stamp on. There were a few slip ups over words in the first half, but Alminta’s Othello really comes into her own following the ‘If she be false’ speech. Her performance in the second half is commendable, and Alminta brings clarity and charisma to this role. The standout performance is Jimmy Carter as Iago, and his command of the language is impressive. The way Carter plays some of the lines is inspired. During Iago’s solioquy ‘The Moor…is of a constant, loving, noble nature’, he seems to place less emphasis on hate and more on love:

Iago

Make the Moor thank me, love me and reward me.

From all his lines and soliloquies in the first half, it was this one which stuck with me. Carter reveals an unexpected, lesser seen desire for ‘love’ and acceptance in Iago, and his delivery of this line is laced with genuine sadness.

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Evelyn Lockley’s Desdemona is so endearing, bringing both a naivety and quiet confidence to the character. Her scenes with Alminta are a particular highlight, and their chemistry is utterly convincing. Oli Higginson’s take on Cassio is refreshing, bringing an unexpected lasciviousness to the role, boldly kissing Emilia even in the presence of her husband. This helps to build Othello’s distrust later on and to some extent the audience’s, as Higginson plays on the faults of Cassio, making for a compelling, honest reading. Matthew Harrison-James’ Roderigo is wholly sympathetic: displaying the passionate resolve of a lover, this is cleverly laced with timidness. Even in moments of bombast, such as when he squares up to Iago demanding satisfaction, his physicality shows nervousness, so thorough is James’ embodiment of the character. Natalie Harper shines as Emilia in the final scene, bringing confidence and rage to the sometimes downplayed character. Her scenes with Carter’s Iago give us an insight into their relationship, but it is the friendship between herself and Desdemona which defines this character, with Harper bringing a sense of female empowerment to the role. In a change to the original text, Brabantio is replaced with Ludovicio and DeVon Jackson’s portrayal is solid throughout. His grief in the final scene is wholly moving, almost making me ask why this wasn’t in the original text, so convincing was it. Finally, James Unsworth exudes authority as Montano, and his physicality in the role is impressive, with the fight scenes well staged.

Verdict: led by a strong cast, HT Theatre’s Othello is an inspired, modern, and most importantly relevant retelling.

HT Theatre’s Othello is playing until the 18th October 2015 at the Baron’s Court Theatre, Tuesdays to Sundays at 7.30. To book tickets, ring the Box Office on 020 8932 4747, or email londontheatre@gmail.com. For more information on HT Theatre, visit their website, like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

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