'Othello' review – Ola Ince's provocative production makes this a blistering play for today

Read our three-star review of Shakespeare's tragedy Othello, now in performances at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to 13 April.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Shakespeare’s brutal tragedy Othello becomes a provocative play for today in Ola Ince’s smart if overstuffed production, which displaces the action from its comparatively exotic European climes to the dodgy realms of contemporary London's Metropolitan Police.

The Moor is no longer a general in the Venetian army but a UK-based Nigerian chief inspector surrounded by colleagues whose hatred of him, and his race, is heard in the crackling radio messages that course through the play.

What’s more, Ken Nwosu’s sensible-seeming Othello is here granted a shadow-self: a so-called Unconscious Othello who weaves his way in and around Othello and has clearly planted himself deep within the actual man’s psyche.

A dramatised id on the one hand and cautionary force or emblem of conscience the next, this alter ego gives lithe and often lacerating form to the struggles of a man of stature who exists at odds with his society. Playing what is in essence a concept as opposed to a role, the actor-dancer Ira Mandela Siobhan lends this production the same effortlessly sinuous grace that distinguished his work in Equus and Mlima’s Tale.

The ingredients are in place for a necessary re-examination of a play that, post-Black Lives Matter, possesses a renewed kick that the gifted Ince intuits well.

As that “demi-devil” Iago, an impressive Ralph Davis – a recent Benedick outdoors at the Globe – offers a fast-talking, laptop-wielding malcontent ensnared in a boozy, blokeish culture that sweeps up everyone, regardless of class. How else to explain the presence in their midst of Oli Higgison’s hard-partying posh boy of a Cassio, an Etonian stripped of his title following a brawl.

The language has been updated here and there, and the odd nickname comes into play: I never thought I’d hear Desdemona (Poppy Gilbert, superb in a tricky role) referred to as “Dezzie”. For once, you truly feel the rapport between her and Charlotte Bate’s expert Emilia as they attempt to push back against the often overpowering machismo at large. Sam Swann's gormless Roderigo is on a first-name basis with the likes of Deliveroo.

For the first half of a long evening, I was fully on side with a show notable for eliciting an attentive hush from the house. Only during the final hour or so does one begin to wonder if the two Othellos aren’t wearing out their welcome and dragging down the hurtling energy of a play that should power through to its chilling finish.

It’s worth mentioning that such defining lines as Iago’s ever-enigmatic “what you know you know” don’t especially land, and Othello’s reflection earlier on that “chaos is come again” doesn’t leave an impression either. A stricter eye might have tightened a production packed with bright ideas that feels as if every possible notion has been overindulged.

Strangely, too, for a candlelit playhouse that this season marks its 10th anniversary, that headline-making feature of this address isn’t a natural fit for this production. Time and again, much is made of carefully lighting, and then extinguishing, the numerous candles on display, the candelabras themselves tilted at an angle as the world of the play gets more disordered.

But it’s not easy to reconcile their archaic presence with the tabloid, camera-ready frenzy of a society that, you’ll forgive the image, has lost its moorings. This is an Othello marked out modern-day grit and guts that needs an editor if it’s to go in for the eviscerating kill.

Othello is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse through 13 April. Book Othello tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Othello (Photo by Johan Persson)

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