othellomacbeth – Lyric Hammersmith

The concept of ‘othellomacbeth’ is daring: staging two of Shakespeare’s best-known plays in a mere 2 hours and 50 minutes. This production certainly achieves the feat of preserving both storylines in spite of all the cuts. However, more is lost than gained by performing two bare-bones plays rather than one fully fleshed-out narrative.

In the first half, we are presented with ‘Othello’. Ery Nzaramba plays the title role, with Kirsten Foster as Desdemona. Nzaramba’s Othello is intriguing and distant; his sudden bouts of anger are vivid and startling. As there is little time to give subtlety to Othello’s descent into jealousy, presenting his rage in fits and starts works well.

Kirsten Foster as Desdemona/witch.

Unfortunately, the same nuance is not achieved with Desdemona’s characterisation. Foster cycles through the same three expressions of joy, shock, and sadness with alacrity and seemingly boundless energy. This gives a fantastic rendition of the plot but a one-dimensional portrait of the character. Given that the production claims to centre on the women of Shakespeare to emphasise the injustice they face, this is particularly disappointing.

Further, there is no chemistry between her and Othello. Thus, the impact of her murder fails because the audience has little investment in the couple. Emilia (Melissa Johns) and Iago (Samuel Collins) are a far more captivating couple. Johns stood out for her comedy, and I wish she had been able to show off more.

When discussing diverse casting, there is often tension between normalising the inclusion of disabled actors and using their disability to add a new dimension to a character. Director Jude Christian achieves both here: Johns’ Emilia is likeable, pragmatic, and self-sufficient; at the same time, our understanding of her loyalty to Iago is enriched by the new context (Johns was born without a right hand). This is highlighted in an interaction between her and Iago, where he kisses her right arm and she winces slightly. It is powerful and subtle – a subtlety which the overall production lacks.

Throughout the first half, Basia Bińkowskaa’s set is minimalist. The bare backdrop of metal sheets become dented on impact, creating an innovative visual record of the increasing violence. At the end of the first half, Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca unite to become the three witches and the metal screen is raised to reveal the set for Macbeth. This second set is striking – monochrome, tiled walls and floor, one stark tree in the centre. There is a walkway above the stage with violin strings stretched taut above the handrail, allowing for some mesmerising and unnerving sound effects. The lighting is also fantastic: Joshua Drualus Pharo makes the witches appear truly otherworldly, bringing the ethereal element to the play.

The idea of the three women of Othello becoming the witches of Macbeth is fascinating and the supernatural element of Desdemona and Emilia rising from the dead works well with the second play. The concept is not fully coherent, though. Bianca does not die in Othello, so why is she also a witch? The witches seek revenge and don camouflage jackets, ready for war: but how does Lady Macbeth fit into this? As Desdemona listlessly trails after Banquo (Nzaramba), it seems that the former Othello still has all the power. Caroline Faber’s performance as Lady Macbeth is captivating – I wanted to see her play the role in full, not in this cut-down, sped-up version.

Some lines are taken from other characters and given to the witches, including Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me now” monologue, which was fitting. There is also the addition of a song that begins “ain’t it always about the man?”, which opens the first half and plays again before Desdemona’s murder. The voices of Kezrena James, Grace Cookey-Gam, and Caroline Faber are extraordinary. I would have liked a final rendition of this at the end perhaps, to tie together the two halves. Instead, Foster concludes with an epilogue. The speech centres on enduring love, which was a bizarre decision as it didn’t fit with the key themes emphasised up until that point.

The production tries to simultaneously posit women as victims and empower them. Yet all but one of the deaths we see are female: the ‘revenge’ of the women of Othello leads only to further female deaths in Macbeth. Perhaps the message is that revenge is futile, but does that also mean that women are destined to be victims? The focus on Desdemona is confusing, as she is the most powerless in a production attempting to ‘reclaim’ Shakespearean women. Overall, the production tries to do too much and achieves too little. It displays innovative ideas but lacks time to develop any of them, and no coherent message to draw everything together. The production itself has a case of ‘vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself’.

 

PHOTOS: Helen Murray

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