“excellent acting, purposeful direction and evocative visuals”
Spurred by the centenary of the Amritsar massacre, Phil Willmott sets this tragic tale of love, jealousy and vengeance in India during the British Raj, casting Othello as an Officer – one of the few Indian soldiers who made it through training at Sandhurst and back to a position of command in the British army. Within the rich tapestry of plot, characters and language Shakespeare epitomises the malevolent aspect of human nature, sparked by its undermining negative feelings of resentment, envy and insecurity. He also brings to light the subject of racism and in this production, we are reminded of the abhorrent attitude towards Indians in their own country. Inferior in rank and whose lower-class British background prevents any hope of promotion, Iago seethes with rancour and orchestrates those around him in an evil revenge; Othello, weakened by self-doubt, falls into the trap.
The scene is set with a tastefully oriental design and some strongly patriotic piano playing. But once the plot begins to unfurl, the background fades. Despite the resetting, it is the words which define the narrative and the dimensions and balance of the characters which bring context. Matthew Wade creates the impression of a young, earnest General, helplessly in love; he lacks the majestic quality of the original experienced warrior which makes his downfall by a malicious, conniving underdog so tragic. Rikki Lawton’s powerful rendering of a more identifiably modern Iago dominates the action and his psychopathic nature eclipses a personal hatred, making Othello simply another of his victims. With his significance diminished, this becomes Iago’s story.
Despite the imbalance we can enjoy the colonial flavour through the atmospheric set (Justin Williams and Jonny Rust), Zoe Burnham’s sublime, cinematographic lighting, detailed costumes, (Penn O’Gara) and solid, nuanced interpretations all round. In particular, Jerome Dowling’s Cassio wins our empathy as he is caught unawares in Iago’s net. As Desdemona, Carlotta De Gregori portrays the incomprehension and suffering of her husband’s turn of face with great sensitivity, but her initial coquettish behaviour towards him only hinders our perception of his standing. And a spirited Emilia (Claire Lloyd) adds plausibility to the era through her accent and demeanour, though fails to grow into the play’s increasing tension.
This modern take on ‘Othello’ has all the ingredients of success – some excellent acting, purposeful direction and evocative visuals – but as a consequence of the weight of importance between Iago and Othello on stage, it is in retrospect rather than a reaction to the drama that we feel the relevance of Willmott’s fresh approach.
“we can almost smell the absinthe wafting through the high kicks, cartwheels and splits”
This year, in the fourth of the Union Theatre’s ‘Essential Classics’ seasons, director Phil Willmott has turned to the theme of ‘Enemies of the People’, highlighting the process by which a ruling elite can attempt to silence not just opposition but also more benign threats that come in the shape of a ‘free spirit’. History has often taught us that the privileged class does not always know what is best for the common good; an argument that comes to the fore in the new musical, “Can-Can!”.
Not to be confused with Cole Porter’s fifties musical of the same name, also set in 1890s Paris, “Can-Can!” takes us into the heart of La Belle Époque, when Paris, formally scandalised by its artistic community, began to celebrate these former outcasts. Willmott’s production, directed by Phil Setren, is brazen and brave, capturing the very exuberance of the period. A real kaleidoscope of a show, it wears its influences openly. Taking as its starting point Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’, which introduced the Can-Can dance to the world, it fuses operetta with music hall and transplants it into a plot loosely based on Arthurs Wing Pinero’s ‘Trelawny of the Wells’. Onto this already rich backdrop are added the real-life cabaret characters from the Moulin Rouge (in particular Jane Avril and ‘La Goulue’) made famous by Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings (the artist himself is also painted into the scenario).
The concept is fascinating, and inspired decisions are made. But like the assortment of source material, the show itself is a bit of a mixed bag. It takes until the second act to find its true tempo. For a musical comedy the timing sometimes slips and misses the pulse, while the rhythm of the dialogue suffers from palpitations. But the choreography does not miss a beat. Adam Haigh’s routines are simply stunning, thrillingly performed by the all-dancing cast whose energy threatens to burn a hole in Justin Williams’ and Jonny Rust’s evocative rotating set. Further aided by Penn O’Gara’s authentically flamboyant costumes, we can almost smell the absinthe wafting through the high kicks, cartwheels and splits.
The script, however, occasionally threatens to douse the fuse that is leading to the explosive finale. But luckily the spark manages to stay alight thanks to a story that bears all the hall marks of a well-structured, crowd-pleasing yarn. Jane Avril (the subtly operatic Kathy Peacock) gives up the stage when she decides to marry her well-healed sweetheart, Christian Bontoux (Damjan Mrackovich) only to find life unbearably dull, trapped in her fiancé’s austere household that detests her unrestrained personality. Escaping back to the theatre, she breaks her own heart as well as that of her beloved, who has also defied his tyrannical father in order to pursue the troubadour life.
If the action occasionally lags it is soon buoyed along by some stand out moments: the dream-like ballet sequence between Peacock and Mrackovich; or the final scenes of reconciliation during which Phil Willmott’s authoritarian character finally secures the audience’s sympathy. Secrets are revealed in some heartfelt revelations to the famous Cabaret Queen ‘La Goulue’ (a marvellously camped up performance from PK Taylor) that give us a surprising back story.
Despite a few splutterings on the way, “Can-Can!” ends with a bang and reminds us of the true intention of the piece. Which ultimately is to entertain. That it succeeds is confirmed by the exuberant hand-clapping from the audience along to the closing number.