In Othello, Shakespeare took on a topic which had been growing in the minds of his Elizabethan contemporaries. The play was written during a period of extensive negotiations between Morocco and England, with a prominent Moroccan ambassador present in London. Yet it is notable for coming out strongly against the racism and indeed sexism of Shakespeare’s time, portraying a strong black character in Othello who is eloquent, powerful and respected.
Oluwafemi Nylander pulls off this aspect of Othello’s character with ease. From the instant he sets foot on stage, there is a certain quality to his presence that asserts itself over the other characters. His early dialogue is self-assured and confident.Meanwhile, Barney Fishwick’s Iago starts out, as the character ought to, inconspicuously.
We’re not quite sure what to make of him in his early exchange with Roderigo who, as it happens, plays the fool brilliantly. While Othello is on stage, Iago is subdued. The audience can’t quite keep their eyes off him as they wait for him to betray some sense of his evil, but he is every inch the perfect ensign.
When Iago is left alone on stage, Fishwick’s talent really shines. Filled with confused and misdirected emotion, we are immediately confronted with the problem of Iago’s motivation. As he plots his revenge against Othello, we can’t help but wonder why. He moans that Othello “between the sheets/ has done my office” and complains that he is a better man than Cassio, and deserves the lieutenancy, but none of these reasons quite satisfy.
For the first half of the play, Fishwick continues in fine form. It is an oft-quoted claim about this play that, due to a script which gives the villain vastly more time on stage, Iago tends to outshine his Othello. This is certainly true in the famous 1995 film, in which Kenneth Brannagh’s scheming ensign blows Laurence Fishburne (an actor of no inconsiderable talent) out of the water. So too in this production, our attention is drawn away from the titular character. By Iago’s third soliloquy, the audience is even starting to take his side, revelling in his evil.
However, in the second half of the play, Nylander shows why he is one of the most sought-after young actors in Oxford. As Othello’s mind fragments, he really rises to the challenge, owning the script rather than allowing the script to own him. Even the notorious fit scene is done well, with Nylander falling to the ground and writhing in a wholly convincing manner; this is a scene that even the most famous productions have struggled with. The final scene is also handled expertly. Othello mysteriously recovers his former majesty shortly before murdering his wife, and the wonderful speeches, in particular “I heard besides that in Aleppo once” at the climax, are delivered with aplomb.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the excellent staging. Christ Church Cathedral gardens are wonderfully picturesque, and the College building itself is used at the start to great effect when Brabantio appears at a first floor window. Throughout the play, the stage is split in two, with most of the action taking place on the main stage, and a solitary bed placed on the right side. The effect of this is a terrifying foreshadowing of the murder to come, and a reminder of the savage ending to the play.
It is in this ending that the third star of the play comes forth. Amelia Cherry’s Emilia is magnificent in the later parts of the play. The ‘Willow’ scene is one of my favourites. Desdemona, whose singing voice is beautiful even if she is occasionally inaudible at times, intones a mournful melody while Roderigo poignantly sharpens his sword, scraping after every line of the song. After this, Emilia’s storming speech on the nature of male-female relations took my breath away. The literal separation on stage of violent men with swords and vulnerable women in a bedroom is a clever piece of stag- ing, and emphasizes the danger faced by the largely helpless Desdemona.
This is a very traditional representation of Othello, right down to the costumes. Few risks are taken with the interpretation, but this is not to the detriment of what is overall an extremely fine production.