Othello by William Shakespeare. The Union, 229 Southwark Street, London SE1 4**** William Russell

By William Shakespeare
A new interpretation by Phil Willmott
The Union Theatre, 229 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1 0LR to 6April 2019.
Tues-Sat 7.30pm. Mat Sun 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr 40 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7261 9876.
Review: William Russell 19 March.

Jealousy and murder in the British Raj

For the third work in his enemies of the people season Phil Willmott has come up with the idea of setting Othello in the Punjab at the time of the Amritsar massacre – it is a world in which Othello as a general in the Indian army is the outsider who comes up against the ways of a society he does not belong to and the jealousy of Iago. It is effective for much of the time, although making Cassio the Padre is arguably a mistake, and Iago as a mere sergeant who serves drinks in the mess is possibly too far down the pecking order for someone who conspired that others should kill to further his ambitions. He could have been in the ranks but had hoped to get a commission and the job that had gone to Cassio working for Othello – which is what Shakespeare did. Rodrigo as a kind of remittance man, however, is a good invention and making Cassius’ mistress Bianca Indian lady of loose morals is another. It adds to that strange social world that existed under British rule.
That said Willmott as director has screwed up the tension in the second act very effectively and secured a chilling performance from Rikki Lawton, a pint sized nasty Del Boy figure, as Iago. As Othello Matthew Wade suffers in the opening scenes in his Indian army uniform, sporting a rather silly turban, which somehow results in his failing to make the impression that here is a general to reckon with, someone the state needs even if he is not one of them, someone who has got away with marrying a white woman.
However, as the evening went on his performance grew steadily and the scenes when inflamed with jealousy were very powerful indeed, although again he had to cope with a costume that did him no favours – a hideous Afghan shirt. His Othello by then really is a man in torment and the scene when he strangles Desdemona – no pillows in this production – is suitably horrifying. I have reservations about Desdemona’s vaguely Indian dresses once wed – somehow they are not what a daughter of the Raj would have worn. Awarding stars is always hard. But the play works, the audience’s attention is held throughout, the climax is genuinely nail biting, and the performances are good so the four are for what is attempted, which is genuinely interesting. Claire Lloyd is a sympathetic Emilia, Carlotta de Gregori creates a splendidly silly Desdemona who simply cannot understand why Cassio is in her husband’s bad books and persists in digging her own grave, and everyone else provides sound support. The set is very handsome, there is a most effective sound system backing the action and the production brings the season to a most satisfactory conclusion.

Othello: Matthew Wade.
Desdemona: Carlotta de Gregori.
Iago: Rikki Lawton.
Cassio: Jerome Dowling.
Emilia: Claire Lloyd.
Roderigo: Maxmiliian Marston.
Bianca: Megan Grech.
The Duke: Jeremy Todd.
Montano: Kit Carson.

Director: Phil Willmott.
Set Designer: Justin Williams & Jonny Rust.
Lighting Designer: Zoe Burnham.
Sound Designer: Julian Starr.
Costume Designer: Penn O Gara.
Production Photographs: Scott Rylander.

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