[Review:] OTHELLO: REMIXED, Omnibus Theatre, London.
Othello: Remixed, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, written and directed by Darren Raymond, is currently performing at the Omnibus Theatre.
I shall start with writing. This adaptation partially modernised the language of the play through contemporary colloquialisms, specifically those of the youth. This was a very brave decision, making the language fresher, more relatable and more understandable for a modern (and younger) audience. However, more care should be paid to this modern language use. As it was, the language alternated haphazardly between Old English and modern slang, and this made for a dialogic incoherency.
This language difference was clearly understood in moments where Iago’s (Baba Oyejide) Old English made him seem intellectual, loquacious and bombastic against slang-speaking Rico (Iain Gordon), also unearthing a theme of classism which is quite important in this play, I believe, which frequently alludes to the hardships of disadvantaged young people. This kind of usage was efficacious and made sense with the play. The two dialects co-existed seamlessly and unapologetically, drawing attention to themselves in an effective manner. However, this usage is outweighed by another predominant one where characters switch between the two without any particular prompt just to work "allow it"s and "bare"s into the script. Whilst this is humorous, it distracts from the performance to keep code-switching in such a way, unless it propels the story along, as with the Iago–Rico example.
But this also made for stylistic problems; there were sometimes moments where the two dialects demanded different moods: the Shakespearean demanded dramatic pauses, stillness, reflection and tension, whereas the modern English demanded pace and action. This made for unseemly silences every so often, though these were quite rare.
The theme of misogyny was really accentuated in this performance, though most primitively, I would say. Sexism and feminism were brought to their rudimentary fundaments: “Men are better than girls”, “No, we are equal”. This is too unrealistic and self-referential. It is far better to sneak these into the play so that the themes are covert yet tangible. Whilst this was the case for a specific scene where Iago instigates a one-sided sexist discourse with the other characters, and a few other moments too, there were other moments that exposed modern misogyny quite effectively: Cassio’s (Micah Loubon) objectification and humiliation of Bianca (Ellie Lees) in front of Iago, or Iago’s sexual manipulation of Emilia (Nakeba Buchanan) to use her as a simple means to an end, or the way in which Bianca’s promiscuity was discussed and defamed by the other characters. These latter demonstrations were extremely successful and should serve as exemplary for other performances which wish to subtextualise such themes.
One other thing that this play does which is different to the original is the introduction of a new character, the Referee (Danielle Adegoke). I personally thought this decision was utterly pointless and, actually, subtractive. Her imperceptibility in the real world, as a voice of jealousy and corruption in Iago’s (and, later, Othello’s) mind was poorly introduced, and it took a long while to realise that she was, in fact, a supernatural character. Whilst I could see why this would be an enticing element to include, I felt it did absolutely nothing for the performance. Perhaps this was done to make the play more self-contained in eradicating Iago’s soliloquies, but this does not cohere with the end where Kwame Reed (playing Othello) directs his final speech to the audience. In fact, this direct address would have sat better in the performance had Oyejide had introduced this style to the repertoire. I did think it was a good idea never to have her enter the ring (the poignancy of which I shall elaborate on later), though this was vanquished quite early on during the transition into the party scene, wherein she enters the ring and dances to the music, seemingly attempting to attract other women to dance with her. Though minutely progressive in the subversion of the heteronormativity of the play, this was bizarre and unnecessary, unbefitting of this ghost-like character who exists outside of and beyond the fights and conflicts.
On to acting style. Overall, the acting was rather, though there are moments for all actors which seem too wooden. There was a problem with diction, in particular with Kwame Reed and Danielle Adegoke, and projection. With such a large ensemble, careful consideration of volume need be had, and oftentimes actors like Lees and Buchanan were lost to the crowd. Acting styles would often differ between the typical misrepresentative Shakespearean and almost realistic. This made for a stylistic disconnect. Comedy, however, was achieved well, and actors, overall, had a good sense of rhythm and tone. Stage fighting was alright but could be refined just a little more.
The ending was particularly weak for all actors, including Hoda Bentaher’s (playing Desdemona) highly unrealistic death scene. More work should be done on extreme emotions and their development from neutrality, but also Emilia’s realisation that Desdemona was still alive, as beautiful in its tragedy as this idea is, should have been much more decisive and pronounced. It was odd for this to happen after Othello’s suicide and not moments before (and when too late), for this caused an ignorance of Othello’s death on all characters’ behalf and hence an unsatisfying, hectic and disjointed ending.
As for costume (designed by Elleshia Flowers), this was very dubious in places. I fail to understand why, for example, the referee would wear ankle-swingers, trainers and latex gloves instead of cotton gloves, or why Desdemona would wear a satin dress relatable to a nightgown to a party. Overall, however, costume was coherent with setting and representative of true modern reality which is not often the case with modernisations of revival plays.
This brings me on to set (designed by Catherine Morgan). I thought the idea of a boxing ring was extremely clever. Not only did this bode well with the combats and conflicts in the plot, but this also recontextualises the play in a familiar contemporary setting for young people, alluding as well to the institutional diversional management of violence which this theatre company is, I have heard, very familiar with. However, the ring did make for some awkward entrances and exits, with certain actors getting visibly caught up in the roping. As much practice with this as possible, in all types of pace, would be recommended.
As for props, boxing equipment was used sparingly, and this was sufficient to place us in the setting without overemphasising it. Cocaine was perhaps a little too much, though this is more of an editorial decision; I just felt this was a go-to representation of delinquency and could have been more imaginative. A different item could have also exposed less represented problems for young people. Mobile phones featured quite a lot in this performance, especially for Bianca’s selfie-taking. I felt that it was unnecessary to see Iago so many times with his mobile phone. Followed by a voiceover that read his texts, this was overkill. He is the only character who texts and whose texts are read to the audience, and so seeing him with his phone in his hand just before and after the voiceovers is too much. The voiceovers, for me, were a bad idea, for this added a different, unwarranted and unprecedented layer to the performance, but if they were to be used, it would have been smoother to have them accompany the tech, not precede it.
I shall end with a few more notes on tech. Tech was used in transitions, consisting primarily of flashing lights and booming club music. This was most effective in generating energy and a sense of action, although some transitions were too slim to warrant such a performative transition. I understand that it is tempting to have such transitions when the action in the next scene is taking place with the same characters but at a different time, but this could be achieved by a simple fade or blackout. R&B music as the audience come in was a good choice; it is always beneficial when ambient music is contextual to the performance.
“An interesting interpretation with engaging performers, just in need of stylistic adjustments here and there.”
Photography credit: Richard Jinman.