'OthelloMacbeth': a bold attempt at realigning gender focus

'OthelloMacbeth': a bold attempt at realigning gender focus

by Sacha Crowther

OthelloMacbeth brings together two of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Promising to bring ‘the voices of some of Shakespeare’s most iconic female characters [...] to the fore’, this combination of plays reeks of ambition.

Staging two great tragedies with just nine performers, in only two hours, is an ambitious goal that is carried off deftly. However, the political positioning of this feminist retelling feels disappointingly underplayed.

The spaceless title breeds the expectation of a melded version of events; yet the two plays are kept distinctly separate. The first act, Othello, is sped through with tireless pace. Whilst the latter, Macbeth, is oppositely slow and subdued. The cast remains the same, but there is little other consistency across the interval. It’s not always clear what is really gained by bringing these two standalone pieces together.

Having said that, the bridge between the two plays marks an inspired connection and delivers the show’s moment of real innovation. The transformation reaches toward a powerful message, embodying the figure of revenge as three women scorned. These once subordinate women set to take control over the forthcoming events in a chilling resurrection scene.

Sadly, this newfound authority is short-lived. Kirsten Foster, Kezrena James and Melissa Johns, as the three ‘weird sisters’, are omnipresent but inert in the second act. Their chilling stares and ominous sound effects make for notable ensemble performances, not quite leading ladies. 

To be perfectly honest, it can take a keen eye to draw out the elements that define this “unique retelling” as truly different to what has come before. Indeed, Desdemona and Emilia are afforded a substantial proportion of stage time; Foster brings childish glee to her role, whilst Johns is enjoyably sardonic. What’s more, a briefly reprised song lends the women a momentary chance for protest: calls of ‘ain’t it always about a man’ and ‘when will she learn’ bookend the drama.

The reassignment of some key speeches does shine a fascinating light on the role of Lady Macbeth. Stripped of her iconic handwashing monologue, Caroline Faber instead delivers Othello’s murderous repentance. This female character, portrayed stoically throughout, is denied a descent into madness and instead stands firm.

Yet the play doesn’t feel like it actively spotlight the female roles. Rather the gendered focus comes as a result of cutting any male soliloquies, and thereby refusing the men any real depth of character. Without a weakness in the face of his wife’s control, Sandy Grierson’s overwrought Macbeth is denied pity and afforded few redeeming characteristics. Indeed, his pitiable speech spoken over his wife’s body is instead given dispassionately by Bianca (Kezrena James) from the balcony. A female overseer ruminating on the fleeting irrelevance of life: this is perhaps one of the greatest feminist moments that this play achieves.

Further separating the two halves, is the stark set. Basia Binkowska’s design comes into its own after confining the entirety of Othello into a bare space downstage of an iron curtain. The monochromatic set of Macbeth lends echoing gravitas to the narrative. As the action gravitates around a tank of increasingly bloody water, each member of the cast is drawn nicely into culpability.  

Condensing the lengthy scripts does create an accessible inroad into Shakespearean drama, for those who don’t want to sit through a full-length production. Unfortunately, to bridge the gaps, OthelloMacbeth relies on uninspired blackouts to punctuate every short scene. Into these blackout voids falls much of the Bard’s intricacy, particularly in terms of character motivation. Rather than providing a Spark Notes summary, there are notable elements removed from each plot as well. It is through these absences that the production most pertinently castrates the male focus. I only wish this realignment came from more vivid female presence, rather than merely male absence.

I so wanted to love this production and to come away feeling empowered; but sadly I left wondering whether anything will ever truly change in the patriarchal realm of the arts? OthelloMacbeth makes an admirable reach for change, but Jude Christian’s production, for me, falls short of its feminist ideals.

To see OthelloMacbeth for yourself, visit the HOME website. The production runs until Saturday 29th September.

Photos by Helen Murray

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