KArla Marie Sweet’s adaptation of Othello features a female Iago, references Billie Eilish’s anthem to “ever-puffy-chested” guys, and has a shrewd modern sensibility in its interrogation of the roles of gender and societal norms.
Sweet’s version is also dramatically tense. Co-directed by Paul Hart and Anjali Mehra, it unfolds at the pace of a thriller. The intimate watermill scene is occupied by a rotating cube designed by Ceci Calf, which turns to reveal state offices, nightclubs, boxing rings and bedrooms. Almost cinematic in its staging, the production is carried by an abrupt air of swagger.
Sophie Stone’s Iago is a portrait of female masculinity and unnerving, calculated slyness. The camaraderie of laddishness is deployed like a foil, and the smallest of physical movements – the frown of the forehead, the rolling of a shoulder – hint at violent undercurrents. On the other hand, despite his boxing prowess, Kalungi Ssebandeke’s Othello seems to be limited by his masculinity, that of simple confidence and honesty. Both are excellent.
Emilia (Chioma Uma) is here foregrounded and agency denied in Shakespeare’s original; the rest of the comedian-musician ensemble is not only in uniform, but also uniformly tall. Their acting fulfills an important dramatic function since the staging is punctuated by contemporary songs. Sometimes surprising, their use is often very evocative. Time slows down. While the scene sometimes feels claustrophobic in its military somberness, these musical moments expand the drama beyond the scale of the human and the jealousy of soldiers and lovers.
The songs also play an important role in the persuasive contemporaneity of the staging. That Othello contains racial and gender-based violence is nothing new. But here, in a world where the presence of female senators and female soldiers is considered commonplace, it would be easy to assume that this is also a world of equality. It is his modern tragedy; easy assumptions based on appearances can blind us to the fact that this is still a world mired in misogyny and racism.