Othello offers fertile ground for the gender-swapping antics of The Smooth Faced Gentlemen, the all-female troupe defying convention with their energetic re-interpretations of Shakespeare. A tragedy catalysed by the tension inherent between what people are and what they seem to be is lent a fresh perspective by the use of an all-woman cast, inviting the audience to take a more granular look at the nature of duplicity.
It is also an extraordinary challenge. Othello is a far greater play than Titus Andronicus, which the Gents reinterpreted so masterfully at Greenwich Theatre earlier this year and at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014. Like Titus, this is a drama firmly rooted in the world of men, but here the action is propelled by more complex machinations than brute revenge – namely, the manipulation of male reputation and the corrosive effects of jealousy.
Director Yaz Al-Shaater claims his mission with the Gents is to put on performances so enthralling that the audience forgets they are watching women playing men’s roles. Undoubtedly the casting invites reflections on Shakespeare’s gender politics as well as on our own modern concepts on what differentiates men and women. Yet it is far more interesting – and enjoyable – to watch the Gents own these male roles without applying these conceptual filters.
In this Othello, the cast well capture the macho camaraderie of a soldiers’ camp, as well as the complex undercurrents of male sexuality that Iago so masterfully coerces to ensnare first Roderigo, then Cassio, and finally Othello himself.
The staging assists in keeping the audience’s attention on the characters. Venice and the Cypriot citadel are imagined through a set of wooden frames and shutters, which the cast scoot across the stage as each scene gives way to the next. This moveable scenery allows the cast to expand, contract, and divide the acting space at will, layering on the sense of entrapment as the tragedy marches on.
Cut to a brisk eighty minute running time, the production focuses squarely on Iago’s puppeteering of his captain rather than the question of whether Othello’s true nature is that of the noble Moor or savage barbarian. This is all to the good, as it thrusts Ashlea Kaye, playing the villain, to the centre of the audience’s attention. Kaye owns every scene she plays in, imbuing Iago with a steely self-control and amoral – near inhuman – malice that both repels and enthrals.
Helen Coles also shines as Desdemona. In this production the character’s inherent strength and faultless virtue is emphasised over and above her naivety, which suits Coles’ mastery of facial expression and delicate use of space. Such an interpretation makes her unravelling following Othello’s accusations of adultery all the more heart-wrenching to watch.
The radiance of Kaye’s Iago and Coles’ Desdemona, however, renders Anita-Joy Uwejah’s Othello dim in comparison. It may be an unfortunate consequence of the abridged running time, but this Othello appears too much the plaything of Iago. Uwejah lacks an aura of command and resoluteness in her early scenes where the Moor is meant to be at the peak of his powers, making his degeneration to spousal slaughter that bit less impactful.
The scene in which Iago engineers Cassio’s drunken brawl is a case in point – Othello’s intervention is meant to be the act of a man still firmly in control and make the audience doubt Iago’s ability to destroy him even as the first plank of his plan falls into place. Instead, I found my eyes still drawn to Kaye, whose dead-eyed response to Cassio’s dismissal fizzed with malevolence. The two characters are never in balance. Iago’s playing on his captain’s mind therefore seems too easy, and Othello all too weak-willed.
Yet it is a small niggle in a production otherwise bright with invention and bursting with talent.