Updated and relocated to a London boxing club in 2019, Intermission Theatre Company’s reimagined Othello is an accessible and creative take on a Shakespearean classic. Othello (Kwame Reed) is the club’s star boxer, and when he chooses Michael Cassio (Micah Loubon) as his cornerman for the upcoming championship fight, a bitter Iago (Baba Oyejide) hatches a plan to bring him down. Taking emotional and financial advantage of Rico (Iain Gordon), who fancies Othello’s girlfriend Desdemona (Hoda Bentaher), Iago convinces Othello that she’s cheated on him with Cassio, and in doing so unleashes a violent chain of events that will ultimately end in tragedy.
Using the plot and key themes of Shakespeare’s original as a starting point, director Darren Raymond breathes new life into this story of jealousy, insecurity and deception. The dialogue interweaves Shakespearean verse with street slang, and also skilfully incorporates mobile phone use and a contemporary soundtrack, all of which makes the plot easier to follow and more relatable to a modern London audience (Othello and Desdemona being spotted together in Nando’s is a particularly nice touch). The action moves much faster than in the original, too, shaving a good hour off the traditional running time to come in at just two hours including interval, without losing any of the essential plot details.
Also interesting is the addition of a new character, the Referee, who acts as a physical embodiment of the jealousy that provokes both Iago and Othello into their actions. Played with sinuous malice by Danielle Adegoke, the Referee takes away a little of the responsibility from each man – while both are undeniably guilty, the audience is invited to question what led them to commit these crimes, instead of condemning them both out of hand as bad people. The play’s conclusion is also less bloody than the original, the violence less ruthless, and there’s an unexpected twist at the end that has the potential to write a very different story. (Sequel, anyone?)
The cast is made up of graduates from the Intermission Youth Theatre, which was set up to give opportunities to vulnerable young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. By setting the action in a boxing club which was established with the same goal in mind, Raymond paves the way for performances that feel grounded in reality. This is particularly true for Kwame Reed as Othello; throughout Act 1 he comes across as a decent guy who’s trying to leave behind a troubled past by channelling his aggression into something productive, whereas in Act 2 we see how easily and terrifyingly that pent-up violence can be misdirected. Baba Oyejide is also strong as Iago, confidently manipulating everyone around him – including the audience, who laugh along on more than one occasion – with a subtle mix of humour, veiled threat, and an occasional nod to the by now well-known concept of “fake news”.
It’s testament to the quality of the production that even if you know how the story ends, the final scene – in which the full impact of Iago’s scheming is realised by everyone – is still incredibly powerful and more than a little tense. For those who don’t know the story, meanwhile, or for those who’ve never had the opportunity or inclination to see Shakespeare done the “traditional way”, Othello: Remixed is an ideal introduction. In touching on topical issues like knife and gun crime, drugs, discrimination, misogyny and the disaffection of young people in the UK today, the production demonstrates how Shakespeare’s work speaks for, and should therefore be available to, everyone. It’s fresh, fun and action-packed with an explosive finale, and I can’t imagine Shakespeare would want it any other way.