English Touring Theatre bring Othello to Oldham Coliseum as part of a national tour, the same theatre and company that presented the superb Weir last year. This is an Othello with the ambition to relate to modern day events, to reflect the challenges we see both nationally and globally of ‘them’ and ‘us’. The set opens with vertical strip lights along the edges and 48 spots above. Sparse, modern and secular.

Othello is clearly presented as a Muslim, and the play opens with he and Desdemona practising a Muslim ritual, perhaps intimating that she has in some way converted. But he also adopts a public Christian lifestyle to fit in, wearing a heavy cross as if he has to show this all too clearly. Yet paradoxically the rules of Venice appear to have no religion. The effect is to position Othello as an outsider – ‘them’ – because he represents something they do not understand.

So often cast as a cynical manipulator, Iago falls into his plan almost by accident, staying only just ahead of events. It is his need to find some way, almost any way, to unsettle Othello that drives him. Yet when the chance comes he grabs it. The nightclub scene where Cassio gets drunk is so full of energy and subversion, a raucous if somewhat stereotyped portrayal of drunken soldiers, that it reinforces the bonds that tie the ‘us’ in this play. And the chemistry between Othello and Desdemona is very strong, Victor Oshin’s Othello moving easily between obsessive love and destructive jealousy.

If the play fails to engage fully that is because the pace is at times erratic. Some scenes are hurried when it would have been better to cut the text to give more room for the play to breathe. The second half is slower and more traditional, and I wanted more innovation on the themes of race and religion, but perhaps it’s harder to find the original text with the scope to do this.

Nevertheless this is an ambitious play that attempts to wrap Othello around contemporary issues. Stage presentation is striking and the acting is impressive. Key relationships, on which this play stands or falls, are convincing and compelling. The ambition to make Othello relevant to today is clearly here, and in that the play is mostly successful.

Photographer credit: Helen Murray

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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