Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Review: 'Otelo' at the Southwark Playhouse, 26th September 2017

Otelo reviewed by David James

Rating: 2 Stars

Of all Shakespeare's plays, Othello could be the most appropriate to be performed by puppets. After all, the titular character is nudged and prodded into a bloodthirsty rage by the manipulative Iago and how better to convey this than having him shove his hand up the character's jacksy and whirl him about the stage? This is Otelo, an abbreviated reworking of Othello by 'Chile's leading puppetry company', Viajeinmóvil and part of CASA Latin American Theatre Festival 2017.

Kicking off somewhere around the middle of the original play, Otelo boils the action down to its skeleton. Nicole Espinoza and Jaime Lorca play Emilia and Iago, who puppeteer the disembodied heads of Othello, Desdemona and Cassius. The two performers intertwine around one another, providing limbs and bodies for their characters, modulating their voices depending on which character they are and navigating a rotating bed set.

At its best, Otelo achieves a neat unity of performance, aesthetic and atmosphere. The disembodied head of Othello has exaggerated features which are accentuated by strong lighting - you could swear its dispassionate features change depending on the emotion of the scene - in the beginning, he is loving, but by the end, he is monstrous and broken - and the plastic visage remains the exactly the same. It's a fierce, pop-infected visual style and when combined with large sheets of primary coloured fabric proceedings take on the faint aura of Dario Argento's giallo.

Espinoza and Lorca are fantastic performers. There's no great sleight of hand here - they remain visible behind their puppets at all times. Yet rather than distracting us, their presence helps convey the emotions the puppets lack. Lorca in particular delivers up a believably frayed Iago riddled with guilt, corruption and ambition - sweatily realising he's in over his head as his plans come to fruition.

Otelo largely achieves its aims and is undoubtedly a singular piece of theatre. However, no matter how appropriate the puppetry translation is to the themes of the play and no matter how skilled the puppeteering, I couldn't help but feel as if there was something lost in translation from the original work. It turns out that there are limits to what can be achieved with mannequin heads, exemplified through the blank, almost sex-doll-like visage of Desdemona, whom Otelo literally objectifies and reduces to a figure of fun. That led to the frequent giggles the play received from the audience whenever the puppetry inched into melodrama. The show bills itself as 'darkly funny', but the moments of surreal silliness puncture the passion of Othello

In addition, the play is in Spanish. That's not a criticism, but it is one more barrier between the audience (well, me at least) and the poetry of the play. Surtitles are projected above the stage, but frustratingly the person in charge seemed to be having an off night. They'd freeze for a couple of minutes then quickly cycle through the lines until we'd catch up, or fall out of sync with what the two actors were actually doing. 

Otelo is an interesting and well-performed dramatic experiment, albeit one that I don't think is wholly successful. Oodles of care and effort have gone into this and Viajeinmóvil are undoubtedly incredibly talented puppeteers, but just I don't think the meat of Othello translates that well into a 75-minute puppet show.

Otelo is at Southwark Playhouse until September 30. Tickets here.

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