This double-bill of two condensed Shakespeare tragedies tantalises. In the first half, 'Othello' is radically chopped up so we only really get scenes with women, turning the play into a study of the way men use and abuse them. Without much of Othello’s journey, it seems his misogynistic violence was always just below the surface, not the result of a madness he was goaded into. And when the women of Othello reanimate at the end, becoming the witches in 'Macbeth', it looks like director Jude Christian will yoke the two plays together to find something new in both about toxic masculinity or gendered violence.
But she doesn’t, really. The ever-present witches appear to control the story, pulling strings to seek revenge on men, but 'Macbeth' is strange play to choose in some ways: after all, the initial spur to violence really comes from a woman. So, male violence is bad – and when women ape it (“unsex me here” etc), that’s bad too? I mean, sure, but I’m not sure you need to see a feminist version of 'Othello' first to get that from 'Macbeth'.
Both halves are stylishly done – the jump-cuts between shorts scenes in 'Othello' are bracingly effective – and amid a mixed cast, there are some excellent performances. Samuel Collings makes Macduff actually heartwrenching, while his Iago is arch and sarcastic; it seems a shame he doesn’t get to let rip with the character’s mostly cut speeches. Caroline Faber is cool, calm Lady Macbeth who then utterly loses her mind; she also does chilling work with Othello’s interpolated final speech.
And if Ery Nzaramba seems woefully underpowered as Othello, Kirsten Foster is a superb Desdemona: appealingly guileless yet with a sharp awareness of her situation. Even in a full-length version you feel she’d make it about Desdemona, her expressions and body language constantly cutting across the way men speak for her.
Basia Binkowskaa’s set puts Othello in front of sheet metal; coldly clinical, is also clangs terrifyingly when struck. Macbeth is all tiled walls and floors, a water tank slowly turning red as bloody hands are washed in it, while above the witches play atonal screeching chords on vibrating, amplified wires (this brilliantly sonically suggests “a mind diseased”, and could be used more). It’s modern dress until a final fight between two men in armour, presumably to remind us it was ever thus.
The problem is that in fileting these plays, you lose narrative clarity. Without much Iago and Othello, the actual plot of 'Othello' is unclear. 'othellomacbeth' risks becoming a chin-scratching exercise for those who know the texts, and can enjoy forging links and noticing where cut lines have been moved to. It's interesting, but somewhat elitist.
It also reminded me of 'Ophelia's Zimmer' – another just-do-the-women approach that painfully revealed what a terrible time they have in plays we keep staging. It’s a powerful point. But you still end up watching violence against women, where victimhood is apparently our inevitable lot. Maybe it would be better to just tell a different story?