Metta Theatre return to Southwark Playhouse with Trevor Michael George’s re-working of Shakespeare’s Othello. A contemporary take on a well known tale of racism, jealousy and love, Otieno is set in Zimbabwe in 2008; an election looms and with it come raiding war veterans and a fragile hope for change.
The action takes place on a white farm which is being protected by militia led by the well-respected Otieno. As in Othello, a secret wedding has taken place between an older war-hardened black man and a younger innocent white woman but in this case that white woman, rather than being a Senator’s daughter, is a white farmer’s daughter and her name is Diana.
With the external pressures mounting, relationships on the farm begin to fray and Otieno begins to doubt Diana’s fidelity. As these doubts take root he turns to his right-hand man Ian for help, not realising that it is Ian who planted these doubts in the first place and that he will do everything in his power to nurture them and ruin Otieno.
William Reynolds’ design is striking and one of the best things about the production. A red dust covers the floor, fine enough to cling to the actors. The red Zambezi beer crates place us in the Zimbabwean context and are effectively used as chairs, table, bushes and bed. The lighting perfectly suits the changing mood, moving between bright white and red to gloomy yellow and grey - the opening scene using torches and shadows is particularly effective in introducing us to the shifting faces of this play's Iago figure.
The use of recordings of actual coverage of the 2008 elections, including some of President Mugabe’s own speeches, is also effective in contextualising and sustaining the oppressive atmosphere of the piece.
As Ian, Jack Hawkins plays the villain with aplomb and his easy laughter which never quite lights his eyes is deeply unsettling, while Trevor Michael Georges’ Otieno is commanding and tender making his swing into violence that much more poignant. Poppy Burton-Morgan’s direction is skilled, particularly in the final scenes as the final elements of Ian’s plan are put into play around the bed of a sleeping Diana.
My only significant reservation is the script. Georges’ references to Shakespeare’s original are unwieldy and serve only to highlight the chasm of quality between his words and the Bard’s. Why not just stage the original, making enough changes to suit the Zimbabwean situation? This production could have been outstanding, but as it stands is proof that no one does Shakespeare better than Shakespeare.