Othello Remixed at Omnibus Theatre – Othello’s transformation from respected to disgraced boxing champ packs not just a physical but an emotional punch in the latest Shakespeare ‘remix’ from the exceptional young people of the Intermission Theatre Company.
Think for a moment, back to your school days. Specifically, GCSE English lessons. Shakespeare. We all had to do it. If you were fortunate enough to have had an enthusiastic teacher, you might remember being encouraged to get on your feet. This for me was where Shakespeare felt alive, when you’re up on your feet and physically engaged in the action.
Cue Intermission Youth Theatre, who since 2008 have seen more than one hundred 16-25 year olds from different nationalities, faiths and London boroughs take part in their 10-month Youth Theatre programme. Their theatre company, made up of programme graduates who have since gone onto professional work, have broken Othello down to its core components, mixed in modern language and staged it in a boxing gym. They are on their feet alright, they are on their toes weaving and dodging in a tense and explosively physical production where violence could spark at any moment.
Othello, the most talented, most respected boxer at the gym has a major competition coming up which he must go away to fight in but when he picks former drug-addict Michael Casio as his 2nd ahead of Iago, a jealousy is stirred up so powerful, that he will stop at nothing to see Othello fail.
Through devising workshops and the work of writer/ founder Darren Raymond, the plot whilst mostly intact, has been pepped up with contemporary language that brings it bang up to date. You’ll find the original poetry spoken, which Iain Gordon as Rico (Roderigo) playfully fails to understand (“Nah… it’s bare confusing!”) but also street language and modern associations. Iago likens himself to the snake from The Jungle Book when explaining his plans, Othello meets Desdemona in Nandos, there is even a Shakespeare-influenced rap battle devised by the company, where you can hear Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet, amongst others, name-checked! It’s a mish-mash but rather than diluting or ‘dumbing down’ the Shakespeare, it serves to add to the wider meaning.
Since we have been living in a time where casts are more racially diverse, it has been an awkward point of tension to draw attention to Othello’s “blackness” when he is not the only ethnic face on the stage. Intermission have cleverly done away with this and instead draw attention to Othello’s status as an immigrant, as an outsider. It’s a status that in contemporary times is even more demonised and unjustly feared. Some of the bullying he experiences is frighteningly familiar.
Intermission stand to prove that Shakespeare may have been writing for audiences 400 years ago, but his work still has plenty to say now. Power struggles, sexism, love and lust… there’s so much rich content there in the text that they don’t shy away from addressing but their work is at its most pertinent when addressing violence. It’s impossible to ignore the resonance this play has in the face of the youth violence across the capital which is currently at epidemic levels. The company have put extra focus, it feels, on stressing Othello and Cassio’s need to remain calm and in control of themselves and their emotions. Othello not only loses his grip on his mind from Iago’s mental trickery, but on his control of his considerable physical power. This is his downfall, and there’s a lesson there for all of us.
It is Baba Oyejide’s as Iago’s straight-faced remorselessness that really makes him the villain in this violent ring, a cold-heartedness that runs deep in the actor’s knock-out performance. The added character of the referee, played with quiet menace by Danielle Adegoke delivers Iago’s inner-most thoughts (soliloquy is interestingly not a feature in this production) and stalks the ring at all times. The full effect of what takes place in the final scene is played with (slightly understated) quiet disbelief by Kwame Reed as Othello, the reactions from Nakeba Buchanan (as Emilia) and Ellie Lees (as Bianca) deliver the emotional blow. Desdemona, whilst earnestly played by Hoda Bentaher, feels a little under-realised. She boxes, we are told, but I was so ready to see her put on the gloves, which never comes to fruition.
Intermission’s Othello Remixed doesn’t just make Shakespeare accessible, it gives it hard hitting and earnest new relevancy. Whether you have never encountered Othello before or seen it a dozen times, this one might just get you up on your feet.
Othello Remixed is at Omnibus Theatre until 14th July.