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Othello review at Unicorn Theatre, London – ‘poetic, crisp and clever’

Ayoola Smart and Okorie Chukwu in Othello at Unicorn Theatre, London. Photo: Graham Michael Ayoola Smart and Okorie Chukwu in Othello at Unicorn Theatre, London. Photo: Graham Michael

Belgian playwright Ignace Cornelissen’s adaptation of Othello for a young audience milks the overlooked humour in Shakespeare’s story but doesn’t dispense with its heavier themes.

While Shakespeare’s Othello has a lofty nobility before his rapid descent into jealousy and madness; Cornelissen’s Othello – the excellent Okorie Chukwu – is more loveable. He can be tedious, he makes naff jokes and is a bit of a social disaster. Sheepishly approaching Desdemona at a nightclub, he eventually confesses his feelings. “Olive juice,” he says. “It sounds like I love you but it’s easier to say.”

Ian Nicholson directs an all-black cast in a production that cleverly swaps racism for prejudice against those with a darker skin tone. Cornelissen’s version of Desdemona is brilliant, though Ayoola Smart doesn’t quite convey the fiery self-determination to pull it off. Lawrence Walker’s Iago, meanwhile, is marginalised and somewhat defanged.

That aside Nicholson’s production is more or less note perfect. Cornelissen’s writing can be beautifully poetic, but he also knows when to have fun. Othello’s tall tales to win Desdemona’s heart are a treat and his obsession with the strawberry handkerchief is rightly made fun of. The modern design and throbbing electronic soundtrack is impressive without being fussy.

The play is aimed at 8-twelve year olds, but sensitive children may find the ending upsetting. Major cuts make the play’s conclusion feel unresolved, although this was always going to be difficult territory for a children’ production.

 

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Verdict
Crisp and clever reworking of Shakespeare for a younger audience
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