“ Performance takes place at the Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. „
Being a Theatre Studies student, I've seen my fare share of theatre and Shakespeare productions, however somehow had never got round to either reading Othello or seeing it performed. This means that I went into the auditorium cold, have no idea what to expect other than a small synopsis in the programme. For most theatre productions, this is fine and usual, however many say that Shakespeare live is best enjoyed after you've read it and really understood it. For this production of Othello, however, coming in with such a small amount of knowledge about the story was not a problem at all, which I put down to the intense and heartfelt acting. The 1950's colonial style of the piece made it much more relevant to todays issues of feelings about race and difference. Instead of seeing the story as a nice entertaining bit of Shakespeare and nothing more, the play helps us see the awful consequences of intolerance and misunderstanding.
Having never seen either Othello performed on Stage, nor the RSC away from Stratford, I was intrigued to see this performance in Newcastle. I have to say that, when compared with other RSC performances I have seen, I felt slightly disappointed.
Act One: The Venue
The play was staged at the Northern Stage theatre in Newcastle. Like the play itself, I found the venue a little disappointing. First impressions are not terribly positive, as it is currently undergoing major building work; so much of it is hidden in scaffolding.
That aside, the venue felt cramped and lacking in space. Virtually everywhere you went in the theatre, there were crowds - it was impossible to find even a moderately quiet corner to put yourself. Signage was generally pretty poor - we had to ask where the toilets were, for example, because there was only a single sign, around 2 inches square, pointing to them. Rather than hanging from the ceiling, the signs were fixed to the wall, with the end result that people stood in front of them, obscuring them from view.
The facilities were not great either. There was a bar, but it was so cramped immediately before the show or during the interval that it was almost impossible to get to. The crowd from the bar also made it difficult to get to other parts of the venue. The toilets were woefully inadequate (particularly, I am assured, the facilities for ladies) leading to massive queues. If I'm perfectly honest, the whole thing rather reminded me of a 1960s school.
The auditorium itself was also rather cramped. The stage was a traditional rectangle meaning that at times, certain parts of the stage could be obscured, depending on where you were sitting (and I didn't have the cheap tickets!) Acoustics were poor, too (although this may also have been the fault of the actors).
In fairness, it may be that these problems are being addressed as part of the revamp. so perhaps I should reserve judgement until that is completed.
Act Two: The Performance
This was an OK, but fairly workmanlike performance of Othello. It was not the worst play I have ever seen, but nor was it even close to being amongst the best. I got the feeling this was very much the RSC 'B' Team; a group of actors sent on tour to the provinces to get some experience, before they are worthy to tread the Blessed Boards by the Bard's Birthplace.
One of the chief reasons for this rather lacklustre offering lies squarely at the door of the cast. They were competent enough - they hit their marks and remembered their lines and so on, but none of them had any real stage presence and failed to command the stage as a great actor should.
This starts with Othello himself, played by Patrice Naiambana. Othello is supposed to be a highly respected General in the Venetian army, despite the fact he is a Moor. Othello of all people needs to dominate the stage. You need to be aware of his presence at all times: even when he is not taking an active role in a scene his shadow should fall over everything.
Naiambana isn't up to the task. His interpretation is whiny, uninspiring and instantly forgettable. It's hard to see why anyone would hold him in such high regard, never mind follow him into battle. He struggles to hold his own and disappears from view too easily. In one key scene, where he castigates his men for fighting, I didn't even realise he had come onto the stage until he started speaking! Othello should be a virulent, domineering character, not some shrinking little mouse.
He also lacks the emotional range required for the role. Bereft of a dominating presence, he needed to convince with the softer side of his character. Here, too, he falls well short. When Othello is stricken with grief and losing his mind, Naiambana chooses to convey this by whining in a high-pitched voice. This makes it very difficult to make out the dialogue (a key part of any Shakespearian play). Worse, it makes the emotional elements somewhat laughable, almost turning the play into a farce, not a tragedy. Naiambana is not the only culprit in this regard, but clearly his confusing delivery of the lines has most impact on the play. Certainly, if you have never seen Othello before, or are not familiar with the text, you will miss out on many of the play's linguistic nuances.
Faced with such a weak lead, it's hardly surprising the rest of the cast fail to inspire. Natalia Tena is a dull Desdemona and her lack of RSC experience really shows. Hannes Flaschberger puts on an 'Allo 'Allo style comedy accent to play Brabantio and the rest of the cast are mostly anonymous.
There are some bright spots. Michael Gould, as Iago, provides some much-needed stage presence. He captures his character's bitterness and devious nature well and always grabs the attention of his audience. His double act with Rogerigo (Marcello Magni) works well, bringing a slightly lighter, comedic touch to their scenes, as well as conveying the darker side of their relationship. Tamzin Griffin, as Emilia also gives a nuanced, enigmatic angle to her character.
Act Three: The Direction
In terms of the overall production, it all felt a little... well stagey. That might sound stupid given that this is a play, but let me explain. The power of Shakespeare's plays lies in the words and their delivery. There is no need for extravagant scenery or props. Some of the best Shakespeare plays I have seen have been done on virtually empty stages, leaving the viewer free to appreciate fine language and acting.
Director Kathryn Hunter overcomplicates things. She has actors racing around in the background holding plastic windows to imitate the sea or wind. A bridge spans the stage, and is constantly pushed into new positions for virtually every scene, proving an unwelcome distraction. She has misjudged song and dance routines that dispel any faint air of tragedy, almost giving the play a pantomime feel. All of this detracts from the main performance, making it even trickier to hear the dialogue. It's almost as though the director recognises the cast is not strong enough to carry the play, so these elements are added to paper over the cracks.
I know I've been quite critical in this review, but don't run away with the idea that this performance of Othello is a complete loss. It is watchable enough and I did enjoy it. However, I do feel that the inexperienced cast never got to grips with their source material and did no more than turn in a competent, but uninspiring performance.
Othello tours Coventry, Hackney, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Oxford and Liverpool between January and March 2009.
© Copyright SWSt 2009