Shakespeare – shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Sadly you remind me of cold class rooms. I attended a school that force fed the pupils Shakespeare in a manner that would make a foie gras goose wince, the unsurprising result being that I have had no great love for the bard. Earlier this year I decided to address this by revisiting the plays and seeing some performances. Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet at the Hackney Empire was extraordinary and I also saw Anne Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear in Macbeth at the National Theatre, a production that was critically panned but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
So I came to othellomacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith with an open mind and intrigued to see the performance. Director Jude Christian provides us with an abridged Othello in the first half followed by an abridged Macbeth in the 2nd.
The story of Othello’s love for Desdemona and his subsequent belief in her betrayal of him is a play within the main play and fits well in this abridged performance. However, without an understanding of the full text, one would have to wonder why Iago chooses to set up his friend Cassio, his master Othello, his master’s wife Desdemona and his own wife Emilia to such devastating consequences.
The era in which this has been set is hard to identify as the actors are in a range of “modern” clothing – Othello appears dressed from a 1970s jumble sale, Cassio is rocking a Blues Brothers’ look, Iago is ready for a session paint balling, Desdemona has dressed for a Midsummer Night’s Dream and Emilia and Bianca appear to have forgotten to get changed for their performance. The bare staging with just a metal backdrop makes it even harder to ground the action in a specific time and place.
This first acts zips along and while the beauty and depth of some of Shakespeare’s language is lost by the speed of the performance it is nevertheless enjoyable to watch. The only slight puzzle is the appearance of a character I can’t recognise who is not identified in the programme singing a lullaby referencing a suicide vest!
As the first half ends, Emilia, Desdemona and Bianca morph into the 3 witches of Macbeth and the curtain comes down.
The abridged Macbeth that follows is just impossible. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s denser more detailed plays and this condensed version makes it ridiculously opaque, not helped by a re-appearance of the suicide vest song and a moment where dead Banquo (previously Othello) hands one of the witches (previously Desdemona) the handkerchief which is the central prop to the betrayal of Othello for no particular reason that I can comprehend. Having seen the full play so recently I was just about able to hang in there but my guest who has never seen or read the play had absolutely no idea what was going on.
All of the actors are excellent and work incredibly hard to inhabit the various characters they each play but ultimately, it is really difficult to understand who this production is for. I would think it is too abridged for Shakespeare purists but requiring far too much comprehension of the original texts for those seeking to dip their toe into Shakespeare’s works.
Reviewed by Emma Heath
Photo: Helen Murray