Review: Othello at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Othello forms part of the Arrows and Traps repertory season, alongside Twelfth Night (read more about that show, and the double bill as a whole, in my review). The two shows are both directed by Ross McGregor and performed by the same cast on the same set, but there the similarities end. While Twelfth Night is a riotous comedy full of romantic mischief, Othello is a dark, dramatic and gripping thriller, with a stunning climactic scene that I’d willingly watch over and over again.

In a modern day setting, army general Othello (Spencer Lee Osborne), known by most as the Moor, has married Desdemona (Pippa Caddick) against her father’s wishes. The couple’s happiness is set to be shortlived, however, thanks to the machinations of Othello’s ensign Iago (Pearce Sampson), who was recently passed over for promotion in favour of Cassio (Adam Elliott). In revenge, and with the unwitting help of his wife Emilia (Cornelia Baumann), Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio, setting in motion a dramatic and ultimately tragic chain of events.

Photo credit: The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

While Arrows and Traps have proved they can turn their hand to pretty much anything, it seems tragedy is where they really excel. Othello, like their recent blood-soaked Macbeth, is intense, powerful and utterly compelling from start to breathless finish. And as in Macbeth, the production draws on the talents of movement director Will Pinchin, particularly in the murder scene, a dream-like montage of music and movement that’s quite spine-tinglingly beautiful to watch.

Unlike Twelfth Night, which draws on the cast’s talents as an ensemble, this play primarily focuses on three central characters: Othello, Iago and Desdemona. As the duped Othello, Spencer Lee Osborne shows us the insecurity of a man who’s always been an outsider, and can’t quite believe his luck that the woman he loves should return his feelings. My problem with Shakespeare’s play has always been in believing that a loving husband could be so quickly persuaded of his wife’s betrayal – but this Othello, though powerful in stature, has an emotional fragility that makes him easy to manipulate, and his willingness to believe Iago’s lies becomes therefore much more convincing for the audience.

Pearce Sampson, fresh from playing Jesus in the Arrows’ last production, here skilfully turns his hand to an altogether different role as the villainous Iago, his twinkly northern charm disguising his evil intentions. This is a bad guy who gets – and deserves – no sympathy from us. On the other hand, we feel nothing but sympathy for Pippa Caddick’s Desdemona, a devoted wife and kind-hearted, loyal friend, with an independence of mind and playful, ever so slightly flirtatious nature that unknowingly hasten her downfall at Iago’s hands.

Photo credit: The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

The Gatehouse has a much larger stage area than many fringe theatres, and the production takes full advantage of the space, with actors appearing from all directions and even on the balcony above the stage. The set’s divided into three parts, which removes the need to break up the action with scene changes, but more importantly allows scenes to unfold simultaneously, heightening the drama and creating the familiar cinematic effect seen in previous Arrows productions.

Othello is a deliciously dark flip side to the madcap comedy of Twelfth Night, but it also stands alone as an intense and thrilling drama about human weakness. In addition, it makes a powerful statement about the way we treat those we see as different to ourselves, a topic that could hardly be more relevant at this moment in history. And it’s confirmed my view that Arrows and Traps are one of the best companies producing Shakespeare in London right now. Check them out if you can; you won’t regret it.

Othello is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse (in rep with Twelfth Night) until 18th November.

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