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.


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Review: Twelfth Night at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter will probably have noticed I’m a fully signed-up and completely unapologetic Arrows and Traps fangirl. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve been more than a little excited about their repertory season at the Gatehouse, which sees the same cast performing Twelfth Night and Othello on alternate evenings.

It’s hard to imagine two more different plays – one a comedy about romantic mix-ups and mischievous pranks; the other a dark story of betrayal, jealousy and murder. But in taking them on as a pair, the Arrows have put together a perfect showcase of everything that makes them so unique and fascinating to watch, while simultaneously demonstrating their impressive versatility. If you want to know what this company’s all about, don’t try and decide which show to see; just book for both.

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That said, the two productions can and do stand entirely independently of each other, in style, tone, even use of the space – so it seems only fair to review them as such. This review will focus on Twelfth Night – check out the other to read more about Othello.

Arguably one of Shakespeare’s most convoluted plots, Twelfth Night sees a young woman, Viola (Pippa Caddick), fall in love with her master, Orsino (Pearce Sampson) – but he’s in love with Olivia (Cornelia Baumann), who in turn has fallen for Viola, now disguised as a boy called Cesario. Oh, and then Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Alex Stevens) shows up, pursued by his friend Antonio (Spencer Lee Osborne), to cause further confusion…

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

Meanwhile, there’s a secondary plot involving a prank played on Olivia’s stuck-up steward Malvolio (Adam Elliott), by her maid Maria (Elle Banstead-Salim) and drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch (Tom Telford), with help from his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (David Grace) and the fool Feste (Lloyd Warbey). Get all that?

If it sounds a bit chaotic, that’s because it is – and this production even throws a couple of previously unexplored love triangles into the mix to complicate matters further. As a result, the play ends up as a study of unrequited love in all its forms, and brings a little more balance to the finale, which, as so often with Shakespeare’s comedies, can feel a bit too neat and tidy. Some of the characters will ultimately be satisfied, but just as many will leave disappointed, and if we’re left with a few loose ends – well, that’s the way life is sometimes.

Director Ross McGregor has assembled an impressive cast featuring several familiar Arrows faces. A larger than life story calls for similarly over the top performances, which include Elle Banstead-Salim’s over-excited and giggly Maria and David Grace’s lovably ridiculous Sir Andrew. Cornelia Baumann’s Olivia is rather more, ahem, erotically charged than we’re used to seeing, while Adam Elliott’s poker-faced turn as Malvolio brings the house down, particularly once he gets his yellow stockings out…

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

But it’s not all high comedy, and there are some beautifully understated moments too – most notably from Lloyd Warbey, whose sad clown Feste, so busy entertaining others that he’s unable to speak of his own sorrow, opens his heart to us instead through song. Pascal Magdinier’s arrangement of contemporary music fits much more naturally than you might expect within the Shakespearean text, and features the likes of The Police and The Proclaimers (yes, really – and it works).

I’ve seen some versions of Twelfth Night that take quite a dark turn, particularly in the treatment of Malvolio, so that we end up feeling somehow complicit in his downfall by laughing. That’s not the case here; though there are undoubtedly some more melancholy moments, the audience is never made to feel uncomfortable. Instead we can sit back, relax and watch love, laughter and music combine in an original and thoroughly entertaining production.


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Interview: Arrows & Traps, Twelfth Night and Othello

Over the past three years, Arrows & Traps have become well known for their unique adaptations of Shakespeare and other classic works – most recently Macbeth and Anna Karenina. But the company’s latest project is their most ambitious to date, as they prepare to perform Twelfth Night and Othello in repertory at Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse this November.

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The decision to take on two plays simultaneously stemmed from director Ross McGregor’s interest in exploring the duality in Shakespeare’s work. “Shakespeare’s comedies are not just simply throwaway funny things that end in orgiastic shotgun weddings. His tragedies are not just gloomy tear-stained stab fests. Iago, the antagonist in Othello, is darkly funny whilst he does unspeakable things to innocent people, and the comic treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night descends into dark cruelty and manipulation. The blending of light and dark seemed to be interesting to explore.

“But it was also a practical decision. If I was asking audiences to come back and see a second show, I wanted to provide a varied menu. Twelfth Night is an unrelenting carnival fun fair of laughter, love and lyricism – and it’s also a full blown musical – whereas Othello is a psychological thriller, set in a hyper-sexualised, racist and cut-throat world of politics and militia. So I thought people would enjoy seeing the same ten people navigate the different worlds and present two sides of the same coin: the birth and demise of love.”

Of course, performing two plays at once brings with it new challenges: “I’m currently running a sweepstake on which of the cast comes onstage in the wrong costume and says the wrong opening line,” says Ross. “It does impose more time constraints on us; we have to work faster, move on quicker, correct and evaluate with more brevity, there’s less room to devise and experiment. Choices are still being made, options are still being explored, but there is now a much more pressing sense of the need for producing work each day and drawing a line under it.

“The line-learning element doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue; I’ve structured the castings so that each actor has a main role in one of the shows, and a supporting part in the other, so no-one is drowning under a tidal wave of iambic pentameter. We use the same set for both, so I suppose that might challenge us to create different stage pictures across the two shows, but with the material being so different, and the characters each actor plays being so contrasting, I haven’t noticed any repetition. In fact, there’s some nice echoes in there across the shows, for instance the bed that Pearce Sampson (Orsino) woos Pippa Caddick (Viola) in is the same one where he (now as Iago) contrives her death (as Desdemona). So I’m enjoying that aspect of it.”

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Anna Karenina

Unusually, the cast for the two plays features only two new faces: “We usually have more, but this project seemed to represent the culmination of the last three years, so I wanted to show that in the casting. We have David Grace, playing the lusciously adorable and insipid Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, and then the lovesick puppet Rodorigo in Othello, an altogether darker and more tragic role. I’ve been a fan of David for about two years, so it’s an honour to finally get to work with him. He brings an energy and dedication to his work, he’s one of the most specific actors I’ve ever heard in terms of his delivery and responses to the text; he’s flourishing as an Arrow and it’s a pleasure to support.

“Then we have Lloyd Warbey playing Feste in Twelfth Night – the lady’s fool and her “corrupter of words”, and Lodovico in Othello. You may be familiar with Lloyd from his work on Art Attack on the Disney Channel, and he’s worked all over the country, so it’s a privilege to have him involved. For Feste, you need a showman, an entertainer and a comedian, and yet there’s a melancholic sadness to him; he’s broken, lonely and jaded, and it’s great to see Lloyd switch in and out, hear him spin the language with a cheeky grin on his face.

“The other eight members of the cast are my core members, the people I would trust with any script, and the people that without them there would be no Arrows & Traps. There’s no greater gift for a director than having a cast like this. They’re a pleasure to see every day, and the amount of effort and energy they put into both shows is humbling.”

As always, the Arrows are keen to delve into the text and find something fresh and original: “I think the main element of Twelfth Night that feels new to me is the darker and melancholic elements. I’ve seen quite a lot of productions of the play that focus on the comedy but ignore the other elements. Shakespeare first staged Twelfth Night on the anniversary of the baptism of his own twin children, one of whom had drowned several years before. I think this was deliberate. On one of the days of the year where he perhaps thought of his son the most, Shakespeare put on a play where two twins find each other again after both nearly drowning. There’s a wish-fulfilment, a consoling father fantasy in that which is heartbreakingly sad. Twelfth Night to me is a dreamscape where your wildest dreams can come true, where gender and sexuality are fluid and transient, where chaos flies with majestic abandon.

“In terms of Othello, I wanted to examine what it means to be a Moor in modern times. So often, we take the word “Moor” to simply refer to someone’s race, to be black or North African, but it originally referred to their faith – that they were Muslim. We’re staging this in November, during the month where Donald Trump may or may not become leader of the most powerful nation in the world – a man who’s built a campaign on fear-mongering against Muslims, a man who campaigns for power on the promise that he will exclude, interrogate and remove people of a particular religion. Othello seems timely to me in that regard.

“I also wanted especially to show Desdemona in a better light. So often she’s portrayed as this weak, blonde willowy girl who meekly accepts her own murder, but to me she’s incredibly strong-willed and independent. She goes against her father for the man she loves, she rejects prejudice and society’s expectations of her and is unwilling to let it oppress or minimise her. She’s seduced by stories of battle and violence, tales of the unexpected and grotesque, which to me shows that this is an adventurous, outspoken, and vivacious young woman, and I wanted to show a Desdemona like that, which is something I’d never seen before.”

Macbeth
Macbeth

And now for the big question – to see just one play, or both? “I’ve directed the two shows to be able to stand on their own two feet independently of each other, but there’s something exciting about seeing both,” Ross suggests. “There are also five days in the run where you can see both in the same day, which would be something of a marathon, but since the Gatehouse is above a pub, you can have dinner in-between, have a drink and make a day of it.

“But if you could only see one of them, you have a choice between a clown-filled chaotic musical of love and passion and confusion, or a darkly thrilling study of the breakdown of a relationship in a violent and brutal society. They’re two hours each, so we’re not talking about a four-hour snore fest, but two fast-paced, visceral rollercoasters. Of course, the producer in me would like to add that if you book for both you get £2 off your second ticket…”

Book now for Twelfth Night and Othello from 1st-19th November.

Review: Red Velvet at the Garrick

The latest offering from Kenneth Branagh’s season at the Garrick is Tricycle Theatre’s award-winning production of Red Velvet, starring Adrian Lester as renowned Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge – and it’s safe to say Sir Ken has another hit on his hands.

Written by Lolita Chakrabarti, the play imagines the events of 1833, as Aldridge is brought in to replace Edmund Kean, who’s collapsed on stage whilst playing Othello. The young actor brings with him an unorthodox acting style, which goes for realism as opposed to the posturing ‘teapot school of acting’ – but what bothers his fellow cast members – and the critics – even more is the idea of a black actor playing (gasp) a black character.

The play may be set 200 years ago, and of course nobody bats an eye any more at the thought of a black man playing Othello (in fact, it would probably be much weirder if they didn’t). But that doesn’t mean the issues at the heart of Red Velvet have gone away, and all too often the colour of an actor’s skin is still of more interest than whether they’re any good at their job – as we saw only too clearly in the recent reaction to Noma Dumezweni’s casting in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And so, while we might have moved on from the days of actors ‘blacking up’, not to mention the kind of casual racism that draws audible gasps from the audience at the Garrick, this is still an incredibly relevant piece of work.

Red Velvet at the Garrick

Adrian Lester gives a spell-binding performance as both the young and old Ira Aldridge, ageing 30 years in an instant, into a sad, sick old man. He’s not always entirely likeable – there are hints about his various extramarital dalliances, one of them possibly with Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), who plays Desdemona in the production. And alongside his appealing passion for his art is the arrogant belief that the experienced cast must do things his way, whether they like it or not. But these flaws only make the man more real, and the fact that he can still break our hearts as he begs his friend Pierre Laporte (Emun Elliott) to save his reputation, is testament to Lester’s layered and compelling performance.

Despite the heavy subject matter, the play is also surprisingly funny, with many of the laughs supplied by Simon Chandler as nonplussed actor Bernard Warde, and Alexander Cobb as the idealistic Henry Forrester. Mark Edel-Hunt indulges in a fabulously childish tantrum (giving a couple of audience members a bit of a start), but becomes an altogether more serious figure the following morning, when he takes a little too much pleasure in reading aloud the negative reviews. And Charlotte Lucas shines as Ellen Tree; she has her own battles to fight as a woman in the arts, and does so with great spirit and humour.

Indhu Rubasingham’s direction sees the cast rarely leaving the stage, instead quietly observing and reacting to scenes in which they don’t appear from the wings, and the set changes are beautifully choreographed by Imogen Knight, so the action flows seamlessly. Act 1 takes a little while to hit its stride, with a conversation between the elderly actor and a Polish journalist leading into a lengthy acting lesson from the younger Aldridge. But it ends on a high with Lester/Aldridge’s intense performance as Othello, carrying us through into the passionate and gripping scenes of Act 2.

Red Velvet is a fascinating insight into the life of a man whose name and achievements have faded into relative obscurity. But it’s also highlighting an issue that should have faded with him – or rather, instead of him. The powerful final scene, in which a frail and elderly Aldridge prepares to play King Lear, is shocking but perfect, summing up the heart of the story in a single, haunting image. I’ve no idea how historically accurate the play is, but it certainly makes its point.


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