I was one of the millions of viewers who devoured the TV dramatisation of The People vs O.J. Simpson – the compelling story of a man’s downfall (and a woman’s murder – the brackets here are deliberate). Director Jude Christian noticed the parallels between the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Desdemona respectively and reflected on the popular fascination with the men who killed them. It made her wonder if we weren’t ‘looking in the wrong place’. Christian’s production of OthelloMacbeth is an attempt to redress the balance – to foreground the women in these epic stories of male power, jealousy and violence. It is a hugely ambitious endeavour which seeks to remain faithful to each play whilst compressing them by half and linking the narratives in a way that offers something new to contemporary audiences.
The level of text compression requires fairly brutal editing and while the shift of focus onto the women’s perspectives is welcome, both plays end up feeling rushed. In Othello, Christian has made a virtue out of necessity with impressively instantaneous scene changes, signalled by lights and eerie voices, which are very skilfully managed by the actors (especially the brilliant Sandy Grierson as Cassio, whose seamless transition from coolly sober to paralytically drunk is an acting masterclass in itself). But something is inevitably lost in cutting plays by half, and the casualties here are the poetry (which simply doesn’t have time to breathe) and character development. It begins to feel plot-driven, and while a greater proportion of the plot focusses on the key women, ironically there seems less opportunity to invest in them emotionally as real, developing characters.
The mash-up of the two plays is, however, where the production becomes interesting, and it is supported by Basia Binkowska’s award-winning design. This begins claustrophobically for Othello, which is performed entirely on a narrow strip of stage in front of a silver steel backdrop comprising panels which refract and distort the stark light just as Iago’s machinations warp the truth. They also powerfully amplify the sound of each act of violence as body parts collide with unyielding metal. The overall effect is appropriately stark and exposing. It doesn’t always work – the constraints of the space require the actors to perform in a line and this begins to feel static and visually flat. Depth is restored, however, in the design for Macbeth, which presents us with a white and black tiled canvas on which to spotlight the vibrant blue of Lady Macbeth’s dress and the red blood that progressively darkens in a glass water tank after each successive murder. Throughout both plays, a metal bridge hangs high above the stage. The bridge provides a spying point for Othello, a site for the dramatic murder of Banquo and a platform for the three sisters occasionally to hover above the action and ‘play’ the taut wires that are attached – for example, as a discordant musical accompaniment to the appearance of Macbeth’s illusory dagger.
The cast also provides continuity between the two plays; Othello becomes Banquo, Iago becomes Macduff and Cassio becomes Macbeth. Most importantly, Desdemona and Emilia (together with the cruelly deserted Bianca) take on new lives as the three weird sisters – orchestrating and watching as their erstwhile men fall victim to Macbeth’s self-destructive power struggle. The transition is powerfully dramatic; as the metal screen lifts, the murdered women reappear, don camouflage jackets and step defiantly into the smoky depths of the newly revealed stage. There is a palpable sense that they are about to trade in their victimhood and preside over the fate of the men who have wronged them. And throughout Macbeth, the sisters haunt the stage, silently observing as the violence spirals and the men get their comeuppance. It is beautifully directed. In a telling moment, Banquo’s ghost (aka Othello) sadly hands Desdemona her handkerchief.
Jude Christian’s achievement is to re-frame these plays as tragedies for the women at the hands of the men. Ultimately, though, these are deeply bleak plays for women and for men. While Emilia cannot disguise a gleeful smirk as Macbeth unfolds, Desdemona seems to look upon the self-destructive violence of the men not with satisfaction but with deep sorrow and helplessness. There is no triumph here. And, meanwhile, the initially powerful and resolute Lady Macbeth poignantly cradles an empty baby blanket and implodes before our eyes in an agonising final soliloquy. While Christian’s shift of focus is worthwhile, and the linkages are provocative and interesting, the time requirements of combining two epic plays has necessarily involved a loss both of nuance and the opportunity for a deeper exploration and interrogation of the women’s experience.