Othello, SISATA at Old Sarum and on tour

OTHELLO, Shakespeare’s tragedy of obsessive love and jealousy, is a story for all time and has been successfully updated and relocated in many landmark productions.

Dorset-based professional theatre company SISATA has taken a radical change of direction, moving the central character out of a military setting into the world of contemporary art.

How you feel about this production is largely going to depend on your reaction to this. You may be convinced by it if you don’t know the story of the powerful and enigmatic Moor, the successful general of the Venetian Republic who falls in love with and secretly marries the daughter of one of the city’s leading citizens.

In the diverse and cosmopolitan world of contemporary art, it is hard to imagine that such a relationship would raise an eyebrow – rather it would be welcome as part of multicultural life.

The inspirations for director Charmaine Parkin were the current horrible rise in hate crime, hiphop culture of the 1980s and the controversial Brooklyn-born Haitian-Puerto Rican artist Jean-Michel Basquiat who was lionised by the New York art scene.

Ultimately, the reviewer of a production has to comment on what she or he feels, while recognising this opinion is subjective, even if it is informed. Certainly many in the rather damp audience in the magnificent setting of Old Sarum castle were hugely engaged and enjoyed the show.

And there were many things to admire – starting with Alessandro Babalola in the title role. He was compelling and charismatic, and his anguish and fury in the terrible final scenes were utterly convincing.

Multi-talented Amelia Gardham was a beautiful, tragic Desdemona, passionately in love with her husband, blissfully unaware of the trap in which she is caught, and poignantly broken by her husband’s jealousy. She was also the swaggering Cassio.

Anna Newcome rose to the challenge of her multilple costume, hair and voice changes playing a host of parts, from Desdemona’s angry mother to a pompous minister, the curator of Othello’s New York exhibition and the hapless Emilia, wife of Iago.

Robert Wallis is a regular member of the SISATA company and clearly has great comic and clowning skills, but he did not convince as the subtle, scheming, jealous Iago. He used huge physical gestures when what is needed is a sense of someone who plays the good servant/apprentice while concealing the black violence inside. This performance was like a whirling dervish of emotion, but it was a performance, not a characterisation.

Open air productions require big voices and big gestures. Othello is set at a time of conflict – just like today – when relationships between countries and cultures are tense and fragile – just like today – but it is told in the context of a tightly constrained domestic drama. All the big stuff happens off stage.

Perhaps that is why it is so rarely performed by open air companies.

This is a thoughtful and intelligent approach to a towering tragedy, but the transposition from a world at war to the rarefied and catty atmosphere of high contemporary art failed to convince.


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