Where in the world are we? A huge Lion of Saint Mark seal tells us Venice, where Shakespeare’s play begins. Later we see a backdrop of sea when the action hits Cyprus. But Riccardo Hernandez’s set is anchored much closer to home: it’s the Abbey, whose idiosyncratic wood-panelled auditorium has been extended to enclose the stage. Even the audience becomes part of the design, with two small seating banks either side of the stage. We’ve been sealed in.
It's a reminder that for all the gross deceptions and violent eruptions in Othello, most of its drama begin in the mind. When Desdemona (Rebecca O'Mara) elopes with Othello (Peter Macon), the wily Iago (Marty Rea) and his rich dupe Roderigo (Gavin Fullam) spread lurid images. We learn from Desdemona that she has been wooed by the general's war stories. And all the elaborate schemes of "honest Iago" – destroying and building reputations, engineering images and evidence of infidelity, stoking Othello's murderous rage – are psychological ploys, powers of suggestion.
That, as director Joe Dowling well knows, is the theatre's domain, and shrinking the playing space to a small marble platform, a stage within a stage, his production makes us a part of it.
The theatre, though, may be the only territory this Othello chooses to observe. Joan O'Clery's costumes rummage through the wardrobes of global history, summoning everything from military uniforms that could be Irish Free State: Desert Edition to 1940s pleated dresses and contemporary suits, without much discernible reason.
Also uncertain, once portions of the audience are onstage, is what to do with them. The seating creates a conspicuously privileged view that only Rea, in one inspired moment, takes mischievous advantage of it.
Soft-spoken, emphasising his Northern Irish voice (accents here are another soup; some real, some affected), Rea’s Iago is a compelling snake in the grass, almost entirely alone, but for us. Neither his pawn Roderigo nor his compliant wife Emilia (an enjoyably earthy Karen Ardiff) know Iago as well as we do. Dowling actually has him interrupt Macon’s Othello mid-soliloquy, as though the audience is the one thing that Iago – a constant actor – guards jealously.
Macon, leaning hard on mellifluous African intonations, suggests a rumbling soldier at sea in domestic affairs, his good- heartedness heavily underlined with a well-judged O’Mara in the giddy passion of newlyweds.
The eternal problem of Othello in performance, though, is how to portray his quick degeneration: as someone finally cracking under racist pressures all around, as the prey of truly demonic influence, or as a gullible figure of rash passions?
A little unsatisfyingly, and with a sense of tradition at odds with the adventureness of the staging, the show opts for the latter. Like an intriguingly surreal dance sequence cut short, or the jumble of references, this Othello feels like a production of bold ideas that loses some of its nerve. Until June 11th