The cosy but business-like Jack Studio, part of the rather splendid Brockley Jack pub in South London, works well for this pared down Othello which has a cast of nine and runs for just two hours including interval.
No longer are we in the racist streets of Venice and a claustrophobic military base in Cyprus. Instead, director Jennifer Lunn takes us to an isolated, knife-blighted, gang-ruled London housing estate. Thus Ntonga “Tango” Mwanza’s Othello becomes an exotic immigrant and former child soldier from Congo with many a romanticised story to tell. Iago (Jamael Westman) is jealously embittered by a lifetime in care.
The problem is that – although Hayley Burke's concrete graffiti-infested set and the hoodies and jeans hint at it – there is no way the audience can work out the finer points of the interpretation without reading the programme notes.
All the language is Shakespeare's and some of Lunn's ideas are so far from the text that uncomfortable incongruities creep in: Emilia (Zainab Hasan) and Desdemona (Sofia Stuart) sharing a girly, very 21st century, bottle of wine with the former calling the latter “My Lady,” for instance. The handkerchief business, which is fine in the original, seems odd here too. I'm pretty sure no-one on such an estate would own or care about an embroidered hanky and it jars.
But this is a fairly minor gripe. The acting quality is generally high given that this is a cast of mixed experience. Some members of Culturcated Theatre Company are young professional actors. Others are still in training. Sofia Stuart's lively, innocent, trusting Desdemona is a delight to watch. So is Mwanza’s boyish Othello whose face is wonderfully expressive and the intimate in-the-round configuration means that every member of the audience can see and feel his anguish. The quiet, contemplative episode before the murder is beautifully done.
Westman’s lanky Iago towers over the diminutive Othello, with all the usual - ultimately tragic - menace ably delivered. A thoughtful actor, Westman also brings, especially at the end, a much less usual, quite touching vulnerability to the role which helps to make some sense of one of Shakespeare’s more puzzling creations.
I rather wish, however, that in the attempt to stop Shakespeare “sounding like Shakespeare” (as Lunn puts it) the cast, racing through the text in a wide range of accents, didn’t lose quite so much clarity. Some lines are simply inaudible.