After being blown away by Maxine Peake’s Hamlet earlier this year, I was eager to see what could become of a classic Shakespearean drama if ALL of the characters were portrayed by women. Whilst drama may be looked on at school as a cop-out, ‘girly’ subject, it doesn’t prevent women from being totally underrepresented and under-appreciated in the profession; thus ‘Smooth-Faced Gentlemen’, an all-female theatre company, attempts to redress the balance. After all, Renaissance theatre was originally intended for performance by a cast of all the same sex!

Unlike Cumberbatch’s Hamlet (see my previous post/rant), this version did not attempt to overdo the play, and, in my opinion, ought to be commended for its simplicity. All the women wore identical, unassumingly beige, 1950s army uniforms; thus enhancing the stand out difference of Othello’s skin colour. The set saw a bare stage adorned with multi-purpose doorframes, hanging (aptly) Venetian blinds. Mounted on wheels, these doorframes afforded fast-paced versatility to the piece, as the action of the play tirelessly changes location. Beyond this, when stationary, the set created some memorable stage pictures, namely: Iago and Othello both kneeling in prayer, each framed by their own door/ confession box. Not lasting all that long, this visual parallelism of the two “men” in matching costumes, postures and framed side-by-side, spoke volumes about Iago’s intentions to usurp the Moor through making him his puppet. Moments such as this added layers of analytical depth to the language, rather than using physicality to necessarily spell out the plot.

Another telling use of the blinds came in the scene where Othello eavesdrops on Cassio, fuelling his anger with misconstrued evidence. A row of half-open blinds cut the stage in half, and spun around to allow the audience to inhabit either side of this arras. As Cassio gushed on his love for Bianca, Othello could be half seen, upstage, pacing in fury. In this scene in particular, the blinds came into their own, marking the key underlying discrepancy between what is seen, heard and so easily misunderstood. The minimalist set design was justified by its symbolic depth.

Despite the effectiveness of the design techniques employed, the overriding simplicity allowed the overall focus to be directed towards the original language, within which the cast found, and exploited, an unexpected level of comedy.

Perhaps overexcited by this opening night of the show’s London transfer, the role of Brabantio seemed comically overplayed in the opening scene; I was momentarily concerned this play could sink into a pit of am-dram clichés (see Romeo and Juliet as played in Hot Fuzz!) However, my fears were allayed as the pressure was laid off of Brabantio and the whole cast adopted an appropriate level of comedy, finding satire and moments of pantomimic self-awareness in the script. Roderigo, played by Hannah Morley, was wonderfully foolish, not only providing comic relief but, importantly, exacerbating Iago’s sinister nature by comparison.

Calm and cunning as he is, perhaps Iago was destined to be played by a wily woman. Actress Ashlea Kaye played the role as perfectly villainous, never allowing masculine rage to let her lose her cool. On the other hand, I wondered from the outset how a role as overtly masculine as Othello could be handled by a female actor. Written as an uninspiring role for the most part, Anita-Joy Uwajeh did seem honestly in love (or indeed lust) with Desdemona; but the true mastery of the role is in the final scene, when her wide-eyed expression crossed the boundary from masculine anger, to the crazed hysteria of a woman scorned. That is not to say that this performance transformed Othello into ‘Othella’; rather that the production as a whole showed the virtue of exploring the unexpectedly feminine depths of character available to these traditional roles.

These feminine attributes were often so subtle that when the female characters actually came on stage, with the simple addition of a colourful skirt over their fatigues, I was forced to double take. Harking back to the original Renaissance playhouses, these women, at times, appeared as men performing in drag! Perhaps so focussed on achieving convincing male portrayals (which, as described, were hugely successful), these actresses didn’t exactly exude femininity when it came to playing Shakespeare’s women. That is with the notable exception of Helen Coles in the role of Desdemona. As expected in this quietly feminist theatre company, Desdemona was a strong female character; she was played with ample sass and, despite her relatively limited stage time, she spoke her lines as if holding her own on a stage full of men.

Finally, drawing together the impressive performances and subtly telling set design, the pace of the play can be considered a triumph in its own right. In order to accommodate the vast geographical and temporal expanses covered, the scenes were made to almost overlap; this, in turn, kept the snappy, comedic energy of the piece consistently high. Never a moment was wasted, unless intentionally so. By creating such tireless energy throughout, the cast left time allowances to slow some scenes to total stillness: such as whilst Othello and Iago share a “friendly” drink, Iago allows silent pauses for his poison to sink deeper into his foe. The opposition between pacy comedy and slow seething truly exacerbated the eventual tragedy.

In order to further enhance the drama and pace of the final act, the cast employed the only script-manipulation I will allow: through a soundscape of repeated lines, out of order and overlapping, it became apparent that Cassio’s attempted murder and Desdemona’s deathbed scene were occurring simultaneously. This slight deviation from folio added to the overall chaos and mania of the closing scenes of the play, somewhat vindicating the rash and undeserved actions therein.

Overall, whilst Othello is by no means my favourite Shakespeare play, this revival brought light, laughter and, most importantly, fast-paced excitement to the piece. It wasn’t just ‘good for a group of girls’, it truly stood out as an impressive, worthy take on classic theatre.

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