"For she had eyes and chose me": Othello at the Edinburgh Fringe
In keeping with the spirit of Shakespeare this production by Smooth Faced Gentleman mixes humour with tragedy in this upbeat and contemporary re-imaging of Shakespeare's Othello.
As you enter the theatre the stage is almost bare, apart from several upright wooden frames on wheels, with blinds (Venetian, of course!) that could be pulled up and down, at a touch. This minimal scenery is cleverly used, as the frames become portals of various kinds, doorways to cafés, bars, houses or rooms, windows with shutters, dividers between inside and outside, and even complicit in deception. This is particularly evident in the famous scene where Othello overhears his lieutenant Cassio talking about his mistress and is convinced by his Machievellian, conniving 'friend' Iago (honest Iago is a repeated motif in the play, spoken by different characters) that Cassio is having an affair with Othello's own wife, Desdemona.
The plot hinges around Iago's feelings of anger and humiliation because Othello has promoted Cassio to the role of lieutenant that Iago felt should have been his. So the latter determines to take his revenge. Not just on Cassio, but on Othello too. His embittered antipathy is made clear when he spits out, "I hate the Moor!" And since Othello has recently married Desdemona, Iago sees a way of destroying him through destroying his trust in his beloved wife.
There is so much to enjoy in this production. The depth of emotions are fully inhabited but never overdone. There is great physical agility as well as emotional dexterity. And the humour and comic touches show human foibles as intricately intertwined with the darker emotions that have such dire consequences. For example, when Othello and Cassio are posted to Cyprus, there's a little tourist sign with a palm tree saying 'Welcome to Cyprus', and when Roderigo, the hapless would-be suitor of Desdemona, manipulated by Iago for his own ends, turns up in Cyprus, he sports ridiculous sunglasses and a garish Hawaiian tie.
Completely faithful to the language and to the spirit of Shakespeare, Smooth Faced Gentlemen create their own original interpretation and reveal the play in all its timeless relevance. And while the fact of it being an all-female production might seem to be a rather unusual take, the acting is so superb, transcending all stereotypes, the gender of the actors is irrelevant, as they inhabit the roles so well. In fact it seemed to me that there was something extra that this cast brings, like an extra current of nuanced feeling that washes through the play, an extra buoyancy and flexibility.
In an interview with The List magazine, director Yaz Al-Shaater talks about the way that Smooth Faced Gentlemen draw on the traditions of farce and slapstick and says that "the more you can make an audience laugh, the more engaged they are, and the more it'll hurt when you hit them with something serious." And this certainly works. If you want to be moved by a theatrical production, then I would urge you to go and see the Smooth Faced Gentlemen. Titus Andronicus is the more passion-packed play, but it was Othello that had me in tears at the end.
I can't recommend these productions highly enough. These are real gems of the Fringe and there is still a chance to see both Titus and Othello, as they continue every day until August 31st. Five stars.