Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 1 February 2020
Reviewed by Steph Lott
I have always loved Shakespeare from when I studied it at school (many moons ago!) right through until recent years. I go and see at least one production during the open air Shakespeare festival that is held every year in Cambridge in various colleges. I have a deeply-held affection for his plays whether it’s an RSC production in Stratford on Avon or an amateur production in a local village hall.
Shakespeare is tricky! The language is so rich and evocative, but dense, complex and belongs of course in another era. I have seen so many productions where the lines are repeated but it doesn’t feel as if the actors are really speaking them. It was definitely not the case here.
This production is the first that I have seen by the illustrious Marlowe Society. They state on their website that they have “an interest in drama that stretches beyond ordinary realism towards the challenging and imaginative.” and that they want to introduce “a professional dimension to student theatre at Cambridge” I note that actors such as Sir Peter Hall, Sir Trevor Nunn, Sir Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Rebecca Hall, Hugh Laurie, Rachel Weisz, Sam Mendes and Tom Hiddleston are all alumni of the Society.
Othello, written so long ago, has themes that remain so relevant for today. It’s a play that speaks so vividly of issues of racism, and violence against women. It’s a supreme depiction of the destructive power of jealousy.
The play exuded a tense menace from the very start, using a very simple set and modern dress. The soundtrack again was not complex but served to help create an atmosphere of claustrophobic foreboding. This simplicity allowed the actors’ words and expressions to occupy the audience’s full attention without distraction. There were several truly excellent performances here by a very gifted cast.
Bilal Hasna’s Iago was a sociopathic rendition of a man filled with resentment and rage at being overlooked for promotion by an outsider. He invites the audience to collude with him in plotting the downfall of a man who is both a leader and in love. What is so disturbing about the portrayal of Iago is that he makes the manipulation seem entirely reasonable and logical in the circumstances. It’s a truly stunning performance.
Christopher Dean’s handling of Othello’s downfall is equally masterful – the transition from a man enjoying success despite not belonging, to falling in love, through suspicion to jealousy to mad rage carries the audience all the way along with his performance. At the end he is terrifying in his towering madness.
The tragically touching scene between Desdemona (Georgia Vyvyan) and Emilia (Anna Wright) has remained with me since last night. They dance entwined as Emilia helps Desdemona get ready for bed but it is as if they already know that Desdemona is doomed – that Othello’s raging jealous madness must surely end Desdemona’s life.
Last night I was bowled over by this production. It was hard to remember that this wasn’t a production that was delivered by professional actors. I hope to see these members of the Marlowe Society follow in the footsteps of those famous alumni I mentioned at the start.