Othello takes fearless turn

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Othello, Shakespeare's tale of racist hatred, jealousy and lust, is as resonant in the tabloid era of race riots and asylum-seekers as it was 400 years ago, when it was first performed. And it is these themes that Othellophobia, a new, touring production of the play, attempts to address.

Othellophobia combines an abridged version of the original text with movement and dance drawn from the martial-arts traditions of tai chi, capoeira and karate.

Visually, the production is effortless. The actors move fluidly across the stage with feline grace and ease. When Brabantio discovers the betrayal of his daughter, Desdemona, he glares like a wildcat about to pounce. As Iago spits out pent-up hatred, dogs bay in the background. Desdemona's murder is a culmination of animal baseness. Declaring "I would kill you and love you", Othello pulls her to him, her writhing death throes a reflection of his lust.

It is a production of extremes. Jo Blake, as a red-cheeked Desdemona, is childlike in her innocence and naivety. Beginning the play in red, she sheds colour to mirror Othello's growing jealousy. By the time his fury reaches its height, she wears nothing but a virginal white shift.

As Iago, shifty agent of Othello's downfall, Olaf Mathar is skin-crawlingly believable. His bizarre, non-textual outburst at the beginning of the play, "Othello? I fucking hate him", is therefore unnecessary. His all-consuming antipathy is never in doubt.

Such directional quirks occur throughout the performance. Most are more successful. The use of music and contemporary background noises, for example, lends the production a modern, edgy feel. And a silent actress lurks intermittently in the background, hovering like conscience incarnate.

When Othello hangs himself, it is his conscience who pulls the cord.

Such moments of originality create the promise of larger, scene-stealing martial-arts displays, which never quite materialise. But Othellophobia nonetheless presents a visually striking warning of the dangers of allowing fear to distort judgment.

Teacher magazine 18

For details of the play's tour www.wkac.ac.ukcpartsothelloothello.htm

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