'Upstairs at the Gatehouse' is a great venue to have in any community. The theatre itself is spacious and modern and, even more importantly, has some of the most comfortable seats in London. And with an enormous pub below, serving an astonishing range of beers as well as a good selection of food, it's a brilliant place to spend an evening - and only a short tube ride from the West End at that.
On offer right now is 'Othello' from 'Epsilon Productions' and Australian director, Megan Finlay. Although widely regarded as one of Shakespeare's great tragedies, I have to confess that it's never been a particular favourite of mine, mostly because the central character, Othello the Moor, seems too easily duped for an astute battle-winning general. Nevertheless, Finlay and her enthusiastic cast of just 6 managed to hold my attention for the duration with a fresh and pacey production which had thoughtful acting, neat technical devices, well-used sound effects and haunting music to drive the play along. So much so, that it even had a die-hard like me beginning to warm to the plight of the Moor.
But it's not Othello who's in charge of this play, it's Iago, a nasty piece of work if ever there was one and probably Shakespeare's most invidious character. Iago hates Othello with a vengeance and wants him out of the way. Iago's helped in his cold and calculated scheming by other dupes, who are almost as easily manipulated as Othello. But, to be fair, Shakespeare created a stunningly clever 'puppet master' in the villainous Iago, so maybe I am too harsh on Iago's foils. And in this production, Alistair Cope not only gives us a highly believable and deviously efficient Iago, he also wraps the part in a subtle kind of Black Adder quality - though, of course, without the Atkinson humour. Even so, there were times when, in spite of the seriousness of the situations we were witnessing, I was tempted to laugh, or even boo as Iago wove his complex conspiracy. And Cope connected well with the audience when delivering his soliloquies to the extent that it was hard to avoid his gaze, and not believe that we too were part of his intrigues. It's sometimes said that Iago has a 'sick' mind, but Cope never gave the impression of that – an interpretation of the character that seems highly appropriate. Cope defines a supremely confident and clever manipulator, who knows exactly what he's about and how to get his way.
Venice and Cyprus are the settings for 'Othello', first performed in 1604 for King James. Othello is a Venetian general who's fallen in love with Desdemona and they've eloped. But Iago has found out about their secret marriage and immediately informs Desdemona's parents. It's a neat and highly significant ploy, because it's Desdemona's mother, not Iago, who plants the seed in Othello's mind that if Desdemona can deceive her mother about the marriage, she might deceive Othello too. No wonder bells start ringing in Othello's ears later in the piece – prompted and tuned, of course, by Iago.
In spite of the marriage deception, Othello is sent off to Cyprus to prepare for battle against the Turks. But once there, the military situation takes a back seat as personal warfare orchestrated by Iago comes to the fore, and it's soon fatally obvious that things will end in rather more than a few tears.
Ansu Kabia as Othello started off with a gentle and controlled delivery which at first seemed rather restrained and a little too polite for a top-notch general. However, the contrast in later scenes became all too clearly apparent, as Kabia romps up the passionate volume in the Moor when his nerves get twisted past the point of endurance, and loving trust is transformed into murderous jealousy. It's a speedy transition, but Kabia manages to pull it off without straining our credulity.
Natasha Pring provides a petite, but enchanting Desdemona with emotional conviction that easily persuades us of her love for Othello, and her bewilderment in the face of her husband's suspicions and hostile reversal of emotions. There's also good support from Angela Bull who handles three different roles with seemingly effortless nonchalance. And fight co-ordinator Philip D'Orleans and his assistant, Roger Bartlett, deserve a special mention for putting together some striking action scenes that gave the play an exciting edge, and were realistically executed by a well-drilled cast.
Megan Finlay has successfully employed a small team with economic and creative efficiency. The resulting effect is a stimulating and engrossing production which never lacks interest or momentum, and is pretty hard to fault. Well worth a visit.