Theatre: Othello – The Moor of Venice

“Does Shakespeare really need to be dragged into the 21st century?” you may wonder after seeing this production, by new company Orangutan, which pairs the original text with a film noir-style backdrop. In actual fact, the story of jealousy, murder, betrayal and archetypical female roles fits surprisingly well. Less seamless is the fusion of 17th-century lyrical dialogue with a genre of moviemaking famed for its low-key understatement. In trying to marry the two together, director Rebekah Fortune transports us to a strange place somewhere in-between.

Set and costume designers Libby Todd and Eleanor Bull fill the stage with the iconic images of 1940s and 50s films – sharp-brimmed hats, dynamic shadows and slinky dresses. However, the performers often seem trapped between embracing the soaring melodrama and toning down their emotions to fit a far less verbose 21st century mood. As Stefan Adegbola’s well-spoken Othello converses with Peter Lloyd’s Northern Iago, while sitting in a café, the drama falls out of what should be an increasingly tense relationship faster than the waitress can top-up their coffee.

It’s only through the second act that the cast finally get to show what they can do, as the story’s inherently thrilling conclusion overpowers the backdrop and enables everyone to forget all about it. Gemma Stroyan’s Emilia and Gillian Saker’s Desdemona share a compelling exchange before the inevitable bloodbath; their words a reminder that this is a timeless and subversive play about prejudice and human fallibility – one that doesn’t really require a makeover.

Riverside Studios, London. Until 18 February. 

Written for The Stage. 

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