“this was a great production that all involved should be proud of”
In celebration of the 400 year anniversary of Shakespeare’s first folio, this summer term at Durham has witnessed a flurry of Shakespearean productions. One of the most anticipated of these was Perception Theatre Company’s modernised reimagining of one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Othello. Following the exploits of the conniving Iago in his endeavours to undermine the courageous General Othello, this story was originally written as taking place within 16th century Venice. However, upon walking into the Community Association Hall of North Road, the audience is met with an altogether different setting. The version of the play that was proffered by co-directors Jasmine Starbuck and Barney Watts was a novel and creative one indeed. Transported far from 16th century Venice, the audience is greeted by a minimalistic, grungy, football bar. Seated in-the-round, the audience immediately felt thoroughly involved in the performance, much like a stadium crowd at a sport event. The mood of the play was then further compounded as our first glimpse into this world saw Iago (Tom Pyle) stride onstage in his football kit, accompanied by the hum of chatter and bar-like background noise, before sitting down and bandaging his ankle.
Across the duration of the play, this cast of actors, which was composed of eleven individuals who were all fantastic in their own right, brought this iconic play to life. Central to the plot however are Othello (Jamal Alli) and his wife Desdemona (Louise Coggrave). Both of these actors played the parts well, effectively portraying the range of emotion necessary to pull off this challenging play. I would have perhaps liked to see a little more chemistry between these two as a pair, but their individual performances should not be underrated. I particularly enjoyed Alli’s interactions with Iago (Tom Pyle). The close relationship that was immediately conveyed, and then developed, is pivotal for the tragedy that unfolds during the play, and its effective portrayal is a credit to both the actors involved. Alongside these leading roles, Othello has a host of supporting characters. Although there is not time to go into detail for all those involved, I would still like to commend Ben Whittle (Roderigo), Joe Rossiter (Brabantio), Grace Heron (the Duke), Abby Greenhalgh (Gratiano), Allanah O’Hare (Bianca) and Tom Cain (Montano) for all of their performances. Every member of the cast conveyed their roles excellently and were essential to the success of the production. I would also like to give Alfie Cook particular praise. As Cassio he brought refreshing comedic relief to the otherwise sombre and intense tone of the show. Far from detracting from the poignancy of the play, this comedy worked to create contrast, and thereby heighten the effect of the later drama.
Amongst this vastly talented cast it feels harsh to name standouts, however the performances of Tom Pyle as Iago and Hannah Lydon as Emilia are worthy of additional praise. Pyle was truly magnificent and simply captivating. Whenever he was onstage he commanded the space, confidently utilising pauses and eye contact throughout (his many!) monologues. His malignant and bitter Iago was everything that such a character should be, and seeing this iconic role brought to life with such panache was just a pleasure to experience. Alongside Pyle was Hannah Lydon, playing his wife Emilia, who is the servant of Desdemona. Lydon’s performance was fantastic, and although her role was smaller in the first act she truly came to the fore in act 2. In a play that tackles many contentious issues, including racial prejudice and toxic masculinity, I found the most emotive sections to be those dealing with the female experience, largely due to Lydon’s stirring performance. Conversations between Lydon and Coggrave, speaking about their societal role and the perpetual struggles they face in their abusive relationships were performed with a sincerity and subtle tragedy that was thoroughly moving.
Although it was a great performance there were some areas that I thought could have done with slightly more attention. As previously mentioned I felt that the chemistry between Alli and Coggrave was perhaps slightly lacking. Additionally, although intriguing I felt that the contemporary twist on this play was a little superficial and, apart from the occasional scene where the actors were taking off shinguards for example, was largely forgotten. Finally the dialogue was unfortunately sometimes hard to follow, especially during fast-paced scenes or when the actors faced away from you. More thought about how the in-the-round staging was utilised could have alleviated this problem.
However, all-in-all this was a great production that all involved should be proud of. The show runs until Friday and the centrality of the venue on north Road makes it an easy show to go and watch, therefore I would certainly recommend that anyone who can goes to see this to round off this year of theatre in Durham.
By Jo Price
Photo Credits: Perception Theatre Company