Othello, Abbey Theatre

Presented in English   
Abbey Theatre (mainstage), Dublin, Ireland
May 5, 2016- June 11, 2016

Abbey Theatre

Karen Ardiff, Emilia
Barry Barnes, Lodovico
Des Cave, Montano / Senator
Malcolm Douglas, Duke of Venice/Ensemble
Laurence Falconer, Officer / Ensemble
Liz Fitzgibbon, Bianca
Michael James Ford, Gratiano
Gavin Fullam, Roderigo
Peter Gowen, Brabantio
Peter Macon, Othello
Cormac McDonagh, Officer/ Ensemble
John Merriman, Officer / Ensemble
Barry O’Connor, Cassio
Rebecca O’Mara, Desdemona
Michael Patrick, Officer / Ensemble
Marty Rea, Iago

Joe Dowling , Director
Riccardo Hernandez , Set Designer
Jung Ah Han, Set Design Assistant
Conor Linehan, Composer and Sound Designer
Joan O’Clery, Costume Design
Sinéad McKenna, Lighting Designer
David Bolger, Movement Director
James Cosgrove, Fight Director

A remarkable performance featuring American actor Peter Macon as Othello and celebrated Irish Shakespearean Marty Rea, who won the Irish Times Best Actor award in 2015 for his searing portrayal of Richard II (and a panoply of other characters) in Druid Theatre Company's marathon adaptation of the Henriad, “DruidShakespeare.”

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Top left
L-R Michael James Ford (Gratiano/ Ensemble), Malcolm Douglas (Duke of Venice/ Ensemble), Cormac McDonagh (Officer/ Ensemble), Des Cave (Montano/ Ensemble), Peter Gowen (Brabantio/ Ensemble), Marty Rea (Iago), John Merriman (Officer/ Ensemble), Michael Patrick (Officer/ Ensemble) and Peter Macon (Othello) in Othello by William Shakespeare. Directed by Joe Dowling.

Top right
Peter Macon (Othello), Rebecca O’Mara (Desdemona) and Marty Rea (Iago) in Othello by William Shakespeare. Directed by Joe Dowling.

Bottom left
Peter Macon (Othello) in Othello by William Shakespeare. Directed by Joe Dowling.
Photo by Pat Redmond.

Bottom right
Marty Rea (Iago) in Othello by William Shakespeare. Directed by Joe Dowling.
Photo by Pat Redmond.

Othello at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (7 June 2016)

A review by Katherine Hennessey

The glinting point of Iago’s prop dagger is inches from my eyeball and for a few fleeting moments I wonder if this performance of Othello is about to morph into Lear, starring me as an—ahem!—rather startled Gloucester.  

This is not the sort of thing one normally has to worry about at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Every other production I’ve seen there (and I’ve seen a few) has safely separated the audience from the action; the Abbey proscenium is usually as impassable as Daniel O’Connell’s wall of brass. But for Othello in 2016, director Joe Dowling and set designer Riccardo Hernandez set three short rows of seats on either side of the stage, shifting the venue’s usual production aesthetic to that of theatre in the round. ‘What an exciting change!’ I thought to myself as I booked my ticket at the end of my row stage left. I had somewhat underestimated the case, as it turns out: my seat was right next to a small railing that actor Marty Rea clutched, dagger in whiteknuckled hand, during the mutiny in Cyprus sequence, Act 2 Scene 3.

I froze for a few moments, my face a blank, my mind nervously attempting to estimate whether a prop dagger could do any serious damage to one’s vile jellies. Then Peter Macon (Othello) angrily restored order; Marty Rea, delivering the superbly calculated lines ‘I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth/Than it should do offence to Michael Cassio’, relaxed his deathgrip on the dagger; and I exhaled.

Even without this breathtaking encounter—the dangers of which I am no doubt wildly overexaggerating—I still would have found this production riveting. For this much credit is due Rea himself. He is, simply put, a splendid Shakespearean actor, capable of delivering complex lines in supple rhythms. Listen to him for an act and you’ll swear the voices Shakespeare wrote for spoke with the vowels and the cadences of West Belfast. Weeks before I’d seen him play Joxer Daly in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Joxer is most often played as an insipid, exasperating scrounge, a figure of mockery, but in the final moments of that performance Rea provided unexpected and chilling insight into Joxer’s warped mind—no doubt channelling Iago, a part he was rehearsing in the afternoons before performing Juno in the evenings.

Rea was supported by a superb cast—Karen Ardiff (Emilia), an actress of immense poise who first appeared on the Abbey stage as a child in the 1979 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Barry John O’Connor (Cassio), who played Orsino in the Abbey’s 2014 Twelfth Night; Des Cave (Montano), who has played Demetrius, Don Pedro and Angelo, among other Shakespearean characters—in fact it’s tough to find a cast list for an Abbey production of Shakespeare that doesn’t have Cave’s name on it—and American actor Peter Macon, who made a grave, dignified Othello. 

Macon is an actor of clear depth and talent. Yet his presence as an American among the cast did provoke me to wonder how difficult it would be to find actors of color in Ireland. The country is still, according to the most recent census, 95% white, with a mere 1% black population, which would pose a formidable challenge to directors looking to diversify their casts. Which itself raises the further question of whether, for Irish audiences, it might make more sense to stage this play as a comment on a different sort of discrimination from white-on-black racism. Othello as an Irish Traveller, perhaps?

As late as 2009, in a reflection on an Abbey production of The Comedy of Errors, Fintan O’Toole wondered ‘Can we Irish do justice to Shakespeare?’ Citing a continuing lack of extended training and ensemble work on Shakespeare’s plays within Ireland, along with the ‘powerfully intimidating effect’ of the Shakespearean models promulgated by RADA and the RSC, O’Toole suggests that ‘There is something rather poignant about the way, after 400 years, we’re still wondering whether Shakespeare belongs in the Irish theatre’. Since that point—driven in part by the commitment of Fiach Mac Conghaile, the outgoing Artistic Director, to approximately annual productions of Shakespeare’s work at the Abbey, but also by outstanding creative stagings across the island, like Galway-based Druid’s DruidShakespeare (2015), Irish theatre practitioners seem to have laid that question definitively to rest.