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Radio: Bold Bard without stage distraction

16 April, 2020 — By Lucy Popescu

Khalid Abdalla. Photo: Raafat Gadelrab

LOVE, ambition and jealousy are at the heart of Othello, Shakespeare’s great tragedy of passion. Emma Harding’s bold radio adaptation is set in an imagined near future. Cyprus is under threat from Turkish forces and the Venetian state sends Othello (Khalid Abdalla), an Arab-born, Christian-convert general, to defend the island.

He’s newly married to Desdemona (Cassie Layton), who accompanies him to Cyprus. The play’s malcontent is Iago (Matthew Needham), Othello’s ensign, who is bitter at being passed over for promotion in the army. He sets out to destroy the general and his preferred lieutenant, Cassio (Max Bennett).

One needs more than a scant knowledge of Shakespeare’s tragedy to follow the various machinations introduced at speed in the opening scenes. What is clear is that several characters resent the Moor’s recent marriage to Desdemona.

When Othello’s entourage arrives in Cyprus and Iago starts poisoning his mind, the drama ignites. Iago sets out to ruin Cassio’s standing with the general by getting him into a drunken brawl – the drinking scene is reminiscent of raucous male bonding down the pub; one knows it will end in trouble.

Othello is forced to strip Cassio of office, leaving the young soldier stricken at the loss of his “reputation.” Iago then encourages Cassio to petition Desdemona to intervene on his behalf. The trap is set. Iago has just to sow the seed of doubt in Othello’s mind. Needham is all wheedling charm one moment, faux innocence the next. By now, Iago is unstoppable in his mission and Needham brilliantly conveys his unwavering ruthlessness.

A particularly chilling scene is when Othello has an epileptic fit, which Iago watches, dispassionately, still thinking of ways to press his advantage. Abdalla perfectly captures Othello’s initial disbelief followed by his swift descent into enraged jealousy. Layton is delightfully feisty as Desdemona, outspoken, loyal and clear-headed to the end.

Harding’s pared-back, two-hour production focuses on Iago’s naked ambition and perceptively explores how swiftly jealousy can erupt into violence. It is an unexpected pleasure to hear the actors deliver their monologues, giving Shakespeare’s words added clarity and weight, without the distraction of stage business.

Othello is on BBC Radio 3 on April 19 at 7.30pm

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