ALL too often, when a director chooses to stamp a new viewpoint onto their reading of a text, their unseen presence becomes palpable on the stage and the audience are aware of the machinery working below the surface. But, just occasionally, if that director has real belief in their own vision and a cast who completely buy into it with them, then the direction becomes invisible and the action appears to flow effortlessly from the performers.
In this new Othello, the latest outing of the Everyman Rep Company it’s clear that Gemma Bodinetz has utter conviction in her very contemporary reading of Shakespeare’s text, and has the absolute trust of the cast.
Placing Golda Rosheuvel in the title role, and making her General into a lesbian woman, Bodinetz attracted widespread media attention long before the production entered the rehearsal room, with much speculation as to her motivation and considerable excitement over seeing Rosheuvel in a major Shakespearean lead.
Gender reversal in Shakespeare seems to be very much in fashion, but in this production the choice proves to be no mere fashion statement. It unleashes so many additional layers of meaning in the complex interrelationships, that the play, however familiar, feels almost like a new piece of writing.
The delivery of dialogue has immense urgency and rhythm and, although they never overemphasise the verse, many of the cast make the words feel like music. None more so than Patrick Brennan, whose Iago drips with venom at every turn but does so with such elegant stealth and guile that his deceit slips under everyone’s radar with insidious ease.
Relieving the tension are some subtly balanced notes of wit, in Mark Elliot’s flouncing Roderigo, Cerith Flinn’s swaggering but fragile Cassio and a brassy, stomping Bianca from Leah Gould. Meanwhile Paul Duckworth, often chosen for more overtly comedic parts, here takes on a series of characterisations where his sharp timing adds edge and bite to the lines. Flinn in particular proves a wonderful subject for Iago’s manipulative wiles, in a boldly physical performance that also shows real vulnerability as his precious reputation is cunningly dismantled around him.
Emily Hughes brings youthful vibrancy to Desdemona. Opposite Emma Bispham’s sympathetic Emilia she is able to explore the confused emotions of the character in between scenes of polarised intensity with Othello.
But at the centre of this strong ensemble cast stands the towering presence of Golda Rosheuvel, who plays Othello as never played before. She delivers the text with such command and dignity that it’s hard to imagine the words weren’t originally written to be spoken by a woman. Here is the proof positive of a complete synergy of understanding between a performer and director, as their shared reimagining of the title role follows her tragic course. It is a performance of immense subtlety, where the weight of her emotion emanates not only through the power of her words but also from the visible sense of inner rage, radiating so strongly that we can almost feel the physical heat of it.
There are moments where rapid fire delivery of lines competes with the in-the-round staging, leading to occasional lapses in audibility, but the continuous movement on the largely bare stage ensures that these are only momentary. Peter Coyte’s score underpins the action with sweeping strokes of atmospheric sound, and the design team of Molly Lacey Davies, Natalie Johnson and Jocelyn Meall also use their sparing scenic resources to maximum effect, culminating in an almost illusory tableau in the fatal bedchamber.
Audiences will make up their own minds where the most important layers of meaning lie in this richly layered production, but Bodinetz’s interpretation is so full of contemporary reference points that it cannot fail to move hearts and minds.