There is a bit of a strange disconnect between venue and artistic vision as the audience shivers into the performance space at the Rose on a particularly cold February night. As soon as a friendly volunteer collecting our tickets tells us to beware the ghosts of Shakespeare and Marlowe on this archeological site, we find ourselves situated not in the ghostly remains of the Renaissance, but among the sharp business suits of a far more modern London. Pamela Schermann's interpretation of Othello sees Shakespeare's tragedy relocated to the modern day, where cut-throat business practices and ruthless careerists create an atmosphere of callous exploitation and underhandedness.
The pacing of the production reflects this: Othello, a lean, focused play at the best of times, is cut down to a bare 90 minutes. More intriguingly, the piece is performed by a skeleton cast of five (six, if you include the disembodied voice of Cassio's mistress Bianca, who we hear via Skype). With just the key players of Othello, Iago, Desdemona, Emilia, and Cassio, the stage is set for a terse, urgent, and claustrophobic production that would emphasise all of the astonishing elements of Shakespeare's play. Sadly, it doesn't quite work out that way.
The issue with setting the tragedy in the cruel world of business is that we simply don't care that much about what happens to the characters. Whereas the Othello of Shakespeare's text is noble and calm, James Barnes's is just a competent boss. Given that we lose all of the scenes explaining Desdemona's brave defying of her father's wishes, we don't warm to Samantha Lock's portrayal; nor is the poignant nature of their blossoming love really touched upon. Cassio (Denholm Spurr) is rather sweet, but not charming enough to be believed as a real threat to Othello's marriage. As a consequence, it's hard to really engage with the characters and their story.
Thank goodness for Trevor Murphy's Iago, whose charisma really saves the production, and also Ella Duncan's Emilia, whose savviness is a huge relief. Murphy's Iago seems to have shades of Frank Underwood from House of Cards, which may well have been an inspiration for this modern-reinterpretation (particularly when Murphy addresses the audience and lets us in on his scheming plans). Murphy and Duncan's husband and wife double act carries the show; their relationship if complex, cruel, but still sexually-charged, and their presence provides an essential distraction from the other insipid characterisations.
Schermann's idea to base Othello in the corporate world isn't without its merits. But the problem with speeding through so many details that serve to enrich the plot is that the audience's engagement doesn't necessarily work at the same fast pace. Despite taking a gamble on a new interpretation, too little emotional investment leaves this production dramatically bankrupt.