“The Moor’. It’s striking just often Shakespeare’s protagonist, in one of the bard’s most complex tragedies, is defined by the colour of his skin. In this new production at the Liverpool Everyman, Othello’s race is not the only thing that singles out the lead amongst their peers.
Gender flipping in Shakespeare is hardly unknown, but Golda Rosheuvel’s Othello is a different creation altogether. Not simply a male character played by a woman, her portrayal of the Moorish soldier casts her as a lesbian at the head of a mighty army populated by men. It’s a bold move that could unravel but it lends fascinating new inflections to a play first performed over 400 years ago.
Gemma Bodinetz’s adaptation is the latest in the current season of the Everyman Rep, with an ensemble juggling roles and plays over four new productions. And while there’s no crashing symbolism in Othello’s gender swap, there are more intriguing dimensions afforded to a character whose otherness is intrinsic to the play.
Following a breakneck opening the tight cast settle into their roles – frequently juggled by a character- and costume-swapping ensemble. It’s Patrick Brennan’s Iago, vital to the mechanics and black heart of the play, who commands the attention initially. It’s to his credit that only in the closing acts is Iago wholly unsympathetic. Meanwhile the theatre-in-the-round setting makes the audience a co-conspirator to Iago’s plotting
Marc Elliott as the hapless and lovelorn Roderigo finds plenty of humour. The Everyman Othello is set in a modern-ish setting that sees characters wearing office lanyards; Elliott arrives in Cyprus wearing slip-on shoes and dragging a holdall, a gauche tourist out of element and out of his depth.
Rosheuvel’s Othello moves from easy confidence to suspicion and subsequently a picture of bitter betrayal. As Iago piles on sly rhetoric to manufactured coincidence, not to mention one of theatre’s most famous false flags in the shape of a discarded handkerchief, Othello’s trust in her spouse, not to mention her mental health, are undermined.
Typically in Othello the audience might ponder whether the character’s insecurities over his race and class – and the prejudices that linger just beneath the surface of peers and subordinates alike – contribute to his swift unravelling. In this production those fractures are magnified.
The marital bed of Othello and Desdemona that bears witness to the mayhem of the final act is shrouded in diaphanous gossamer, as if to somehow protect the audience from the appalling acts contained within. When the union between the two reaches its terrible conclusion it’s genuinely hard to watch.
Othello might be seen as typifying male misogyny – two men responding to perceived betrayals by their wives by killing them. But this new production throws it out of the window: is violence towards women born of gender, insecurity or power? Can the three ever be teased apart?
Meanwhile Desdemona’s father dies broken-hearted, bereft at the thought of this daughter marrying a Moor, a woman, or perhaps both. It reinforces the idea that women are to be owned by their partners and family; denied their own agency.
Despite the fine work of Rosheuvel and Emily Hughes in the endgame, it’s Patrick Brennan’s Iago who leaves the lingering impression. Race? Gender? Sexuality? Jealousy? Just why does Iago inspire to wreak such mayhem?
Bodinetz’s production doesn’t attempt any explanations, nor does Brennan’s portrayal offer any answers. Instead the audience is left to ponder new questions as to the motivation of one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters.
Intermittently until 10 July