May 27, 2018, by Peter Kirwan
Othello (Everyman Company) @ Liverpool Everyman
Liverpool Everyman’s repertory company’s second season brings together a single ensemble for a wonderfully eclectic group of plays – including A Clockwork Orange, Paint Your Wagon and The Big I Am. Othello, perhaps surprisingly, was the smallest scale of the three productions, performed by only eight of the ensemble in the round on a relatively bare stage. Gemma Bodinetz’s production focused on the play’s raw emotions, creating something that managed to be both unusually funny and ultimately devastating.
The production’s selling point was the casting of Golda Rosheuvel as Othello, in a butch-femme lesbian relationship with Emily Hughes’s young Desdemona. Interestingly, the production did little beyond the casting to queer the text; opportunities to, for example, render Iago’s description of Desdemona’s ‘unnatural’ choice or Brabantio’s shock as homophobic weren’t taken up, and neither Desdemona nor Othello were connected to any explicitly defined lesbian communities or cultures. Othello’s sexuality was unremarkable in this society. While this might perhaps seem a missed opportunity to have done something more politically minded, it had the advantage of allowing the production to explore the two’s relationship on its own terms.
Rosheuvel was outstanding. A head shorter than most of her men, she exerted effortless authority; during Cassio and Montano’s brawl, she floored Cassio in seconds with a quick self-defence twist, and when she grabbed Iago to threaten him with death, the ensign seemed genuinely momentarily terrified. Her quiet self-possession when before the Senate or in commanding her troops bespoke a confidence in her position, a confidence extended by her being unafraid to show emotion. A notable early example was her recounting of her relationship with Desdemona, her voice breaking as she remembered the sympathy she received from her lover. While the idea that an openly gay woman of colour had risen through the ranks of the armed forces, while also remaining emotionally vulnerable and unquestioningly trusting, might stretch credulity, Rosheuvel conducted herself with an open confidence that clearly inspired love and loyalty.
This made it all the more crushing as the clouds fell. In a brilliant rendition of the ‘garden’ scene, Othello and Patrick Brennan’s Iago sat at separate trestle tables, working their way through bowls of cereal, while Iago casually dropped his comments. In these sequences, Rosheuvel’s textual dexterity showed itself to best effect, her clipped delivery of short questions juxtaposed with her rich, rolling performance of longer statements of outrage and misgiving. Othello’s earlier emotional honesty in public with Desdemona translated seamlessly into quick terror and anger as her worst fears were realised, and her quick emotional shifts in turn made sense of the suddenness of her epilepsy, her delivery increasingly fragmenting until she suddenly collapsed to the floor.
Against Rosheuvel’s beautifully nuanced performance, Brennan was able to simply let his tricks work. There was no oblique backstory to this Iago, nor hidden motivations or psychological complexity. Iago’s resentment of Othello was clear; while any number of driving factors could be read into his dislike (from bitterness that the glamorous Desdemona had married another woman to frustration that even with white male privilege he still ran errands for a stronger woman), the simple fact was that he was her inferior in every respect. This Iago was surrounded by younger people with promising futures, and his one advantage was the relative respect accorded his views and honesty; Brennan found resonance in relatively neglected areas of the text such as the rhymes improvised for Desdemona as she arrived in Cyprus, which he used to test her boundaries, and in his description of Cassio’s sleep-talking, during which he wrapped himself around his general’s body.
Iago’s various gulls were easy victims. Cerith Flinn was something of a revelation as Cassio, a young and intimidatingly buff Welsh soldier; Iago’s jibe at him being ‘an arithmetician’ seemed ironic here, as Cassio was a powerfully built fighter but clueless. Some of the production’s funniest scenes came from his interactions with Leah Gould’s desperate Scousewife Bianca, appearing in a succession of amazing outfits and giving the hapless Cassio barely a moment to speak back to her. The disdain with which Emilia and others treated Bianca was a nice local riposte to media representations of Liverpool women; Bianca, of course, was far more innocent than others preferred to treat her. Cassio, meanwhile, threw himself quickly into the revelry, appearing shirtless and pouring bottles down his throat before straddling Iago. Cassio’s guileless anger at his own behaviour left Iago plenty to work with.
The rest of the comic relief came primarily from Marc Elliott as rich boy Roderigo. In evening wear and red velvet shoes, or turning up in Cyprus with a matching two-luggage set, Roderigo could have stepped out of any number of posh reality shows, and his energetic self-righteousness was simultaneously endearing and grating. His death was one of the production’s more moving moments, Iago holding him closely. Paul Duckworth, meanwhile, did multiple duty as Brabantio, Montano, Gratiano and the Clown, the latter too busy listening to the football to engage with Desdemona.
Desdemona and Emilia (Emma Bispham) were, more clearly than usual in productions of Othello, on holiday. Pleasingly breaking away from more demure depictions, Hughes played Desdemona as fun-loving and openly sexual, appearing in a range of costumes from swimsuit to summer dresses, and grabbing Othello (even while on duty) for displays of public affection. Early in the second half, Emilia and Desdemona adjourned to the beach to work through a bottle of prosecco; it was here that Othello interrupted and demanded the handkerchief, Desdemona’s carefree enjoyment of herself appearing to contribute to Othello’s rage. Emilia was, unusually, the most demure of the women, happy to disappear into the background and wait quietly for Desdemona to drop the handkerchief, or to lightly joke with her mistress; only in the last scene did Bispham finally show Emilia’s bite.
The production worked best when it allowed its actors to take the lead. Frustratingly, Bodinetz kept insisting on underscoring Big Speeches with intrusive incidental music, detracing from some of the subtleties of delivery. Thankfully, the final scene was largely spared this, and a beautifully designed bedroom – featuring translucent drapes descending from the ceiling all around a central bed – created a spatially complex environment for the murder. Desdemona remained shielded from the audience by the drapes, while Othello paced on all four sides outside, moving in and out as she vacillated. Desdemona fought verbally for the relationship, pleading with Othello on equal terms; the sudden strangling (hands around throat initially, followed up with a pillow) came as a shock to her, and she thrashed for a while before Othello’s weight and unflinching pressure won out. Rosheuvel’s performance subsequently traced Othello’s breakdown uncompromisingly, and with a sympathy that is rare in modern productions; her final speech was delivered with moving dignity, and while the image of a woman killing a woman didn’t entirely remove the spectre of misogynistic violence, I don’t recall seeing a production of Othello where the central couple’s connection of love had been more convincingly established.