Sunday, March 10, 2019

Othello – jealous newlywed fearing hanky-panky is goaded into revenge (Bright Umbrella Drama Company)

Staging Othello in a church hall on the interface between the Castlereagh Road and Short Strand certainly adds a feeling of East(Belfast)enders to Shakespeare’s play. The Bright Umbrella Drama Company’s latest work spreads a cast of six over nine characters, trimming the Bard down but still delivering a two-hour performance.

General Othello leaves Venice to defend the island of Cyprus against a Turkish invasion. He brings with him his until-recently secret wife, Desdemona, command the Venetian armies against invading Turks on the island of Cyprus (rather than Cyprus Avenue!) his ensign Iago whose wife, Emilia, is Desdemona’s attendant. And trusted lieutenant Cassio.

Iago is mustard. Hot, stinky mustard that burns your mouth. He manipulates everyone with a web of lies that buckles their relationships and a fog of mistrust envelopes the cast until the tea is well and truly spit as the bodies pile up at the end of this tragedy.

Director Trevor Gill exploits the shape and intimacy of the new venue, taking advantage of the small balcony and stairs at one end of the hall – handy if they ever revive November’s Romeo and Juliet – and playing across a long stage against a simple black backdrop with three monochromatic boxes.

The soldiers and their wives are dressed in modern camouflage uniform. The aggressive male military backdrop perhaps forgives the shouty discourse, though Sam Mahadeo’s Othello uses much more light and shade across his performance. Bright Umbrella are unafraid of violent action, with an incident of unexpectedly vigorous waterboarding splashing the front row and spousal abuse upping the emotional ante at relevant points in the five-act play.

Glenn McGivern plays scheming Iago as a brutal bully hidden in plain sight, never showing signs of weakness and making great entrances and bringing a suitably dominant presence every time he was on stage. His wife Emilia (Christine Clark) portrays a woman scorned and trapped in a bad relationship.

Bryony Randall gave Desdemona a sense of pluck, looking up adoringly at her new husband Othello and delivering tender moments – and some sweet singing – but also capable of turning up the emotion when its required in later stages to spit out her character’s rage.

Taking on two sizeable roles as Cassio and Brabantio, Chris Darcy’s switch of mannerism helps distinguish between them. His drunk’n’disorderly Cassio impresses, but the obvious difference in age between Cassio and Desdemona does stretch the script’s notion of a potential attraction that would threaten Othello. Adrian Cooke plays the remaining two characters, Roderigo and Lodovico.

The mixture of rifle, handgun and dagger feels a little anachronistic. And as the company settle into the venue the addition of coloured lighting may help accentuate the mood of some scenes.

As the first production staged in their new home venue, Othello was a triumph for Bright Umbrella Drama Company. Hopefully their reputation will grow and future performances will attract in local audiences to engage with the plays the tackle. As story of racism, love, deception and jealousy, misplaced trust and loyalty, and hyped up with planted evidence, suffocation and revenge killing … the universal themes of Othello certainly resonate in their new location as well as further afield in Belfast and beyond.

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon

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