In the canon of western theatre there can hardly be a more powerful description of calculated evil than in Shakespeare’s Othello. The current production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe is directed by Ola Ince with a touch of genius and elicits gasps of incredulity at the deceitful malevolence of Iago as he plots the downfall of his senior officer, the noble Othello, who has got the girl and the job Iago wants. It’s The Traitors in iambic pentameter. Ince sets it in the present day with Venice and Cyprus transposed to New Scotland Yard and The Isle of Dogs and the Republican army as the Met Police using tasers and receiving fuzzy radio messages. The prejudice in Shakespeare’s play is rendered institutional.
Ralph Davis plays Iago with persuasive charisma, lurking, leering and lying to everyone except the audience – “I hate the moor” he soliloquises, with unashamed candour. Ken Nwosu is an upright, trusting Othello, substituting naivety for authority perhaps, but wrestling throughout with his subconscious in the form of Ira Mandela Siobhan who appears with him on stage, contorting in an interpretative pas de deux in eloquent but mostly silent expression of Othello’s inner turmoil – an inspired addition to Shakespeare’s cast which makes this production unmissable.
The two principal women are excellent. Poppy Gilbert is a light and loving Desdemona, innocent as the sacrificial lamb and utterly deserving of our sympathy. She sings the Willow Song bending her willowy form to the newly composed music and sharing its lilting refrain with the cast. Charlotte Bate’s Emilia is both coquettish and angry, a fizzing electric charge on stage. The horror of Othello is relieved by the comic pop-up re-appearances of the dim-witted Roderigo, played for laughs by Sam Swann in a variety of present-day uniforms, now Deliveroo biker, now hi-vis street worker.
The blackness of the play is both emphasised and illumined by the beauty of candlelight, lit on stage in another imaginative theatrical contrivance. Owuso’s Othello takes a taper to a ring of candles around the marriage bed making Desdemona’s murder disturbingly ritualistic. The music, led by Rio Kai on double-bass, is witty and apposite. The cast sing fresh words to Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs Robinson to celebrate the tragic marriage and the percussionist, ever alert to the text, discreetly highlights telling phrases such as “green-eyed monster” which he underlines with a tingling cymbal. A ringing success.