OTHELLO at the Riverside Studios
“the interpretation is a quick-fire and vibrant rendition”
This new take on Shakespeare’s tragedy of race and jealousy comes with quite the twist: the role of Iago is played by three different actors simultaneously. The first question that comes to mind is, why? One has to suppress the faint rising wave of scepticism as the auditorium fills up around us. There is no set whatsoever, and the feeling that this might be some sort of drama exercise is foremost in our minds. It doesn’t take long, however, for this trepidation to be completely eradicated by Sinéad Rushe’s fresh take on the play.
Even without the added theatrical device (which they term polyphonic characterisation), the interpretation is a quick-fire and vibrant rendition. The empty playing space allows us to focus on the performances which are uniformly strong among this small company. With a finely honed physicality and harmony within the cast, no backdrop is needed and, indeed, with the clear-cut pruning of the text no background is needed – such is the clarity and succinctness of the delivery.
The cast are huddled around an acoustic guitar, their own bodies percussion instruments; from which Desdemona (Rose Riley) breaks away and dances unrestrained around the space. An atmospheric opening, but the one (and only) time we do question the dramatic choices.
From the off, Martins Imhangbe is an impressive and imposing Othello. His strong demeanour is quietly controlled, sometimes a touch too soft and vulnerable, before the bemused rage finally breaks through. Riley breaks away from the stereotypical Desdemona, refusing to come across as pure and meek. Instead she is self-possessed but respectful of Othello despite the incomprehensibility of his jealousy, almost to the point of tenderness. Her rendition of the “Willow” song is particularly poignant and beautifully sung. Ryan O’Doherty is a charismatic Cassio, a bit of an enigma, keeping his true feelings under wraps beneath a trusting exterior. Not so Emilia, Iago’s wife, whose distrust and fiery outspoken cynicism is brought to vivid life in Rachel-Leah Hosker’s striking performance.
“This is a show where atmosphere is predominant”
Which brings us to Iago, and the focal point of the production. During the performance, though, the reasoning is immaterial. It ceases to be a question as it works so well dramatically. Michael C. Fox, Orlando James and Jeremy Neumark Jones are all exceptional. Individual, yet merging into one character; they are both a chorus and a trio of separate characters. They become co-conspirators, negotiating among themselves. They surround their victims, sometimes in whispers, sometimes in storms. The effect is often chilling as one man’s voice can be heard echoing in triplicate from three different spaces. Iago no longer addresses the audience, which in turn increases the impact. It is a complex and risky scenario, but in the three actors’ hands it is pulled off to immense effect.
The threatening and menacing atmosphere is sustained throughout by Ali Taie’s percussive and sinister soundscape, along with Alex Lewer’s starkly effective lighting. This is a show where atmosphere is predominant, even though we are invited also to consider the racial and political reasoning behind Rushe’s choice of the three Iago’s. Traditionally Iago draws the audience in and coerces them into being complicit in Othello’s downfall. This is no longer the case. Yes, we are aware of the device but not on an intellectual level. It is a thrillingly innovative approach, but we are so wrapped up in the performances that we forgo analysis in favour of relishing each moment, right up to the tragic and, in this production, quite plaintive ending.
OTHELLO at the Riverside Studios
Reviewed on 6th October 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Mark Douet
Previously reviewed at this venue: