It's potentially one of the the most brutal scenes in western literature and certainly one of Shakespeare's most memorable final acts which, no spoiler alert needed, results in a pile of three innocent bodies slain through a hot mixture of jealousy, contempt and self disgust. The perfect marriage of Aristotelian principles collide in this perfect tragedy that sees a man brought to his knees and manipulated to within a cold inch of his life, leaving the audience helpless in its unravelling and mildly complicit in its exploration of prejudice.
The press material that accompanies Richard Twyman's new production of Othello, fresh from Bristol's Tobacco Factory highlights the contemporary relevance of 'alternative facts' which in this case sparks a deadly quest for 'ocular proof' resting on the trivial location of a spotted handkerchief. The production explores the 'othering' of Othello in the context of both race and religion, focussing primarily on his Muslim heritage that sees him open the play unfolding a prayer mat. The prejudice that marks Othello's demise is a rich area of critical debate but it's brought to the fore here in an alarmingly modern setting that forces its audience to purposefully widen their lens. There are times when this refocus works to Twyman's advantage, mirroring the mat in the final act as Desdemona faces her death on a yoga mat, decked out in Lululemon, yet elsewhere it feels more than a little reductive.
Staged in the round it's rich, bold and thoroughly engrossing. On a bare and basic set it's powerfully lit and expands into the space whilst maintaining the intense intimacy of Wilton's Music Hall. I was less convinced by the use of both the boxing ring microphone and punch bag that seemed to be born from convenience rather than necessity – some areas of the modernity felt naff and forced yet thankfully they weren't enough to hamper the strong acting performances on which the bulk of this production rests.
As Othello Abraham Popoola commands a dominant physical presence and uses his stature to his advantage flitting between the playful gentleness with his new wife, frequently whisking her over his shoulder and offering a soft-centred role model. His conflict throughout the later acts is spectacularly well judged and his final scene mines effective levels of desperation and anxiety that realistically draw him to his tragic conclusion. I found him less convincing in the role of celebrated warrior and leader – his speech to the senate in which he confirms his 'wooing' of Desdemona and the lack of witchcraft involved lacked gravity, and amongst the much older cast didn't brim with convincing authority. That said, it's his relationship with Norah Lopez-Holden's Desdemona that's our primary interest and this was a powerfully connected relationship that made for a strong climax, fittingly played with verbal fireworks that helplessly spark and splutter.
As catalyst for the descent into jealousy the crux of the narrative lies with Iago, demonstratively played by Mark Lockyer. At times a little rushed and over emphasised I didn't buy into his drive or determination until much too late and he seems too keen to physically spell out his journey to the audience which threatens to give him away far too early. As he grins and chuckles at the conclusion his wickedness finally connects, but at times his trickery felt effortful and consciously placed.
Piers Hampton makes a charming and effusive Cassio who handles the text particularly delicately but captures the necessary warmth with the female characters and the warlike authority even within this slightly underdeveloped contemporary military context. Katy Stephens offers a strong and complex Emilia, openly chided by her husband and fearful of Othello at the key moment where her admission of guilt could help save her life. One of the play's most intriguing scenes lies in Act Four as Emilia and Desdemona share their thoughts on the nature of marital relationships which is here carefully navigated in order to make the conclusion, and Emilia's final admission, really pack an emotional punch.
As much as the production emphasises Othello as a 'play for our time' it survives the modern trappings and stands up both in and out of this new context. The winning element of this production is its intimate minimal staging that captivates and places you tight in the centre of the domestic drama amongst a set of arresting and urgent performances.
Othello tickets are on sale to 3 June 2017.