Othello at the Helix

January 9, 2014


Watching Second Age’s Othello, currently running in The Helix, is like seeing the Bard done in a foreign tongue. Most of the opening night audience were able to follow the action having studied it for school or professionally. But any further comprehension was mute. In spite of being fully microphoned, hardly a word of what was said on stage made its way to the back of the cavernous auditorium. The production brought us to the edge of our seats, not through theatrical means, but out of sheer necessity to catch some of the words spoken.

You have to ask- what was John Breen doing during tech? Every time Cronin’s Iago turned downstage he moved beyond the range of the mics and became inaudible. Chris Obi as Othello ingested his words rather than projected them, while every other male character, with the exception of Simon O Gorman’s Brabantio, bellowed repeatedly so as to make a nothing of the verse.

Projection and diction issues aside few actors on stage gave any indication that they understood their craft. What motivated inspired and tormented them was not apparent, so the lines of the play took on the sound and effect of a pneumatic drill. No one reacted to the elements or to the action, rather they stood around and delivered their lines as if this nightmarish tragedy wasn’t unfolding before them

As with the previous two Second Age shows, it is ruinously cast. Where are all the men? These are meant to be soldiers, fighting- according to the programme, to defend the British Empire in the Falklands (How? WHY?). None possessed the gravitas of their position or even the bawdy camaraderie of soldiers at the front. And John Cronin may as well have introduced each soliloquy with the phrase ‘and now, for my next trick’. His performance contained no seething envy, no burnt ambition and no psychotic paranoia. Most crucially it contained no hurt malevolence and no conniving charm. What caused his destructive tendencies? Shakespearean speeches are made up of distinct points but Cronin mills them into one another so as to not elucidate his thoughts. He doesn’t use words like needles to undo the stitching of ‘the Moors’ stability and as the plot unfolds he reacts with all the enthusiasm of a narcoleptic on Ketamine.

He is matched by Obi. A morbid, insular lump on stage who displays no passion, no savagery and no chaotic nerve. You never believe that he could rise to such a position or command the respect of men above and below him or that he would ever be jealous or unstable enough to kill his wife. He is the perfect front man for a production that doesn’t know what it is doing or what it is about.

There are saving graces. Chiefly Dagmar Döring’s resolute Desdemona and Eva Bartley’s considered Emilia. Their final scene together has a thoughtful cautiousness to it that foreshadows what’s to come. They listen, react and respond to what’s said and do it naturally, not frozen till their cue. Since virtually no other actor followed suit you have to wonder if they stole away to a corner of the rehearsal room and worked on it themselves!

More’s the pity others didn’t follow their lead. This is a calamity. Second Age provide a vital service, providing many school kids with their very first taste of theatre beyond panto. Productions this dull could stop many from coming back to the theatre for years. Like the actors in it, this show has no character.

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