“Man up” Ashlea Kaye’s Iago commands Hannah Morley’s Roderigo, a moment of tension that highlights the disruptive gendering of OTHELLO in this production by Smooth Face Gentlemen. Featuring an all-female cast, this interpretation draws attention to the traditional notions of gender in the text, and reconfigures them in interesting ways. Its not completely clear whether the cast are playing as men, or reimagining the roles as women and this ambivalence obstructs an easy understanding of the production’s gender politics. However, in blurring notions of male and female in this OTHELLO, Smooth Face Gentlemen have created a staging that holds true to the basics of Shakespeare’s tragic tale, whilst complementing it with humour and new nuance, developing meaning.
The company have adopted a modern militaristic aesthetic, formal rather than combat ready, aptly signifying both the rank of the characters and their victorious position in the war. Slick scenic transitions use framed, moving (and appropriately, venetian) blinds. The company make good use of the space (Underbelly’s Potterrow venue), with slick transitions and it was refreshing change pace from many of the more static shows that I’ve seen at so far at this years Fringe.
OTHELLO is often a play that deals with gender reasonably with thought and care. Here, Helen Coles’ Desdemona is performed with her usual naivety, but with an added strength of character and her later, heated scenes with Anita-Joy Uwejah’s Othello are performed more as a battle between equals rather than the typical misogynistic domination towards his wife. Of course, Desdemona is still a victim of Iago’s cruelty and director Yaz Al-Shaater and fight director Enric Ortuño horrifically stage her murder here. It’s an extended struggle with a visceral denouement, and Emilia’s (Henri Merriam) entry, a moment too late to save her mistress, is utterly tragic.
Uwejah’s Othello offers a bracing interpretation of the character. She captures his necessary sexuality and charm – we believe that this Othello could be the beloved commander of the Venetian forces. She fights with strength and fluidity, though all her physical prowess is juxtaposed with Othello’s naivety – retained by Uwejah, as “honest Iago” manipulates her. The racial tension, so central to Othello, is maintained in this production though he nature of casting both lovers with female actors develops an overt gay subtext. As is the case with many ‘othered’ bodies, racist historical portrayals have presented black male sexuality threatening. In Are We Not Men? Phillip Brian-Harper describes the image of “the savage ‘walking phallus’ which poses a constant threat to idealised white womanhood”. In Brabantio’s (Terri Reddin) eyes, such a threat is only compounded by the black, gay sexuality presented here. Brabantio’s protest that Othello has corrupted his daughter is given new meaning here with Othello’s intersectional sexual image and by the apparently shocking possibility of Desdemona’s lesbianism.
It is a shame that the production doesn’t capitalise on this deft, though potentially accidental nuance, but the very nature of the all-female cast offers an intriguing reading of the play. The production does raise plenty of questions surrounding gender and sexuality, occasionally highlighting the sometimes-misogynistic attitude of the traditionally male characters with a knowing look to the audience that adds some necessary humour. The engagement with the issues is sometimes frustratingly shallow, although Emilia’s speech towards the end of the play on the similarities between the character of men and women stands up, and nature of an all-female cast supports Emilia’s argument that, intrinsically, they are all the same.
Collectively, the ensemble is very strong and the few examples multi roleing are done well. Indeed, if their TITUS ANDRONICUS is anything like their OTHELLO, it too will be well worth your visit. The company deserve credit for finding so many interesting nuances in the play and their gendered focus is intriguing. An exciting, fast paced production that ably delivers the tragedy in 70 minutes, Smooth Faced Gentlemen have created an enjoyable and intellectual stimulating show.
OTHELLO will continue its run at Underbelly Potterrow until the 31st August at 12:20pm. Tickets are available from the Fringe box office and website – https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/othello-an-all-female-production.
Director – Yaz Al-Shaater
Design – Bex Kemp
Lighting Design – Celia Dugua
Dramaturgy – Anna Beecher/ Tom Crawshaw
Fight Director – Enric Ortuño
General Manager – Anna Haigh
Production Manager – Matt Nelson
Stage Manager – Fran Osimani
Costume Supervisor – Hanne Talbot
Graphic Design – Haz Al-Shaater
Cassio – Emily Baristow
Desdemona – Helen Coles
Iago – Ashley Kaye
Emilia/Duke – Henri Merriam
Roderigo – Hannah Morley
Brabantio/Clown – Terri Reddin
Montano/Bianca – Sharon Singh
Othello – Antia-Joy Uwejah