Last year the Everyman repertory company’s Romeo and Juliet boldly transformed Juliet into a young man called Jules. For this year’s Shakespeare production they’ve reversed the trick and Othello has become a woman. It might sound a bit gimmicky, but gender-swapping approaches to Shakespeare have been in vogue for quite a few years now (Glenda Jackson was a much acclaimed King Lear in 2016). And – you might argue – if it was ok in Shakespeare’s time for men to play not just the male roles but all the female ones as well, why not? More importantly, when it works – as it certainly does here – it’s a device that adds yet more layers of meaning to Shakespeare’s plays, proving that they remain a gift that keeps on giving, their capacity for reinterpretation seemingly inexhaustible.
Rather as making the central relationship in Romeo and Juliet a gay one gave an extra dimension to the teenage lovers’ rebellion against their parents, so in this case making Othello a lesbian as well as black underlines the character’s outsider status in Venetian society. And given that the play’s three (original) female characters are all treated badly by their husbands or boyfriends it’s interesting to see a strong, assertive woman at the centre of the action for a change.
Increasing the kinds of prejudice Othello has to battle against also makes her an even more impressive figure – a black North African woman who’s fought her way to the top and now commands the Venetian army. Golda Resheuvel’s performance is compelling and very accomplished, capturing Othello’s early confidence and authority but also the gnawing insecurity that makes her susceptible to Iago’s devilish manoeuvres.
Patrick Brennan is a wonderfully villainous Iago, a clever, wisecracking misogynist who shares his schemes with nobody but the audience. As an expert purveyor of fake news he’s very much a man for our times, and were he around today you imagine he’d have no problem landing a top job with Cambridge Analytica. He deceives just about everybody, convincing fellow Venetians Roderigo and Cassio that he’s their best buddy while ruthlessly using both for his own ends. Most calamitously, he persuades Othello that her new wife Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, Othello’s newly promoted lieutenant. But he’s not the only one at it – even honest, virtuous Desdemona marries Othello behind her father’s back early on and from the off it’s clear that the world of the play is one riddled with deception and misinformation.
Emily Hughes is superb as Desdemona, radiating goodness and innocence but surprisingly spiky in her exchanges with Iago and conveying the inner strength that enabled her to defy convention when she married Othello. Emma Bispham is a spirited, outspoken Emilia – Iago’s long-suffering wife and one of the play’s most interesting characters. However her role also illustrates how Othello’s change of gender occasionally comes at a price. Her memorable speech about the failings of men was obviously intended to target Othello as well as her own husband, but it doesn’t have quite its usual force here. Cerith Flinn is a charming, fresh-faced Cassio, while managing also to suggest that he’s not someone you’d entirely trust (he’s certainly a bit of a snake where his ill-used girlfriend Bianca’s concerned). Marc Elliott’s a big hit with the audience as the comically hapless Roderigo, who arrives in Cyprus dressed as if for a holiday in Benidorm.
Director Gemma Bodinetz opts for a modern dress production with many of the characters in military uniform, emphasizing the play’s contemporary relevance and heightening the sense of women struggling against a very masculine environment. There are some nice imaginative touches, as when Iago uses mobile phone footage to support his lies. The second half feels a little disjointed and lacks the surging pace of the first, but as the shadows close in on Othello and Desdemona and Iago’s many chickens come home to roost it’s a gripping climax.
Ultimately though it’s the illuminating shift of emphasis towards female characters which means that this will surely be remembered as a landmark production of Othello. In the best traditions of the Everyman it offers an absorbing and highly original interpretation of the play.
***** Eye-opening and genuinely innovative
Photos: Jonathan Keenan
Othello continues at the Everyman, Liverpool until 10 July, alternating with other plays from the repertory company’s 2018 season.