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Othello In London

Published: Wed 15 May 2024 01:32 PM
Ken Nwosu and Ira Mandela Siobhan in Othello. Photography by Johan Persson.
One of the abiding pleasures of revisiting the city of my misspent youth is to take in what London has to offer in the way of great theatre. A recent production of Othello at The Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse provided a stunning example of why English stage directors and actors remain the leading exponents of the art and craft of live drama.
Ola Ince’s radical reimagining of Shakespeare’s tragedy was made all the more relevant by the news of multiple murderer OJ Simpson’s recent demise. Set in contemporary London, the production was replete with modern references to the Met (London’s corrupt, misogynistic, racist, and scandal-ridden police force), from the use of walkie-talkies, handcuffs, and the drug trade connecting up-market Chelsea and to the revivified atmosphere of Docklands, once the haunt of such notorious villains as the Kray brothers.
Utilising the compact space of a candle-lit replica of the old Blackfriars Theatre, Ince utilised a multicultural cast that could have been drawn straight from the streets of Walthamstow. They were upstaged by a silently mute, but highly expressive ‘Subconscious Othello,’ brilliantly played by Ira Mandela Siobhan with great physical acumen. His contorted movements veered between subtle and delicate to frenzied as he perfectly embodied the writhing and wrangling of Othello’s tortured mind.
It’s fascinating to learn from the Head of Production at The Globe (Wills) the reason why Shakespeare enlarged his tragedies to encompass five Acts - so they could bring the candles in and trim the wicks! The stage is lit for storytelling with a variety of visual effects: for Macbeth a few years ago there were some brilliant atmospheric scenes using just a single candle, while last year’s Titus Andronicus used candles as avatars for the characters. After an hour of burning candles, the chandeliers are brought down and the candles trimmed before the flames go wild.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the San Wanamaker Playhouse was designed to emulate original Elizabethan and Jacobean practices, for which there was obviously no electric lighting. As the only candlelit, timber-framed building in London, next to the only thatched building in London since the Great Fire in 1666, pure beeswax candles are used (which were also available when these types of indoor theatres were originally built), providing a pleasant product that both smells delicious and burns well. Over one hundred candles are used for each performance and any candle ends that aren’t used are returned to their manufacturer in Cumbria to be recycled.
The air handling is designed to avoid draughts hitting the candles. If you have a perfectly still flame, it uses all of the wax for fuel, but when a flame flickers it melts the wax faster and it drips profusely. The downstage chandeliers have bigger cups to catch the wax because they are susceptible to a sideways draught. When scenic elements are altered it affects the way the air moves in the space and the candles behave differently, plus a lot of the air comes from beneath the seats, so it’s harder to manage if audiences put bags and coats under their seats and block it.
Watching theatre by candlelight can be soporific and clear sight lines remain a challenge, so it helps when the actors move around. Looking through a point of light makes everything beyond it dark, so handheld candles were used to reflect light out and shield the candle from interrupting the audience’s field of vision. Health and safety regulations demand a strict list of prohibited hair products in addition to the use of certain manmade fibres and fabrics, using less flammable cotton, wool, or silk.
For this production of Othello, the actors sometimes employed hand-held torches with reflectors on the back so they could light up other characters when the reflectors were turned towards their faces, then take the focus away from them by turning the reflectors on themselves. Or they brought a candelabra into the middle of a scene, which instantly changed the focus. Rather than waiting for lighting cues, it is an actor-controlled environment and highly effective.
Beside Wills’ insightful illustrations of how changing technology can affect modes and methods of artistic production (from which the above details were taken), the expansive programme also includes a beautifully illustrated article History of The Globe, which opened in early 1599. Jeffrey Boake reflects on the potency of Othello’s challenges with toxic masculinity, mental health, and racism in ’Two-Ness’ Within One Body. Patricia Akhime writes about Myths And Mirrors: Othello’s Self-Image and Dr Dierdre MacManus investigates psychological trauma and intimate partner violence in an article entitled A Complex Psychological State.
Howard Davis
Scoop Arts Editor
Educated at Cambridge and UCLA; worked on several major Hollywood feature films and as a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Los Angeles; currently enjoying life in Wellington.
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