CASA 2017 is now in full swing, last week inviting Viajeinmóvil to Southwark Playhouse for their reimagining of Othello – a truncated version, Otelo. Its relevance the festival lies in the tragic murder of the Moor’s wife, Desdemona, as Latin America is notorious when it comes to femicide.
A cast of two play Iago and Emilia, who then act as the puppet masters over Othello and Desdemona; rather than puppets in the traditional sense, they are instead made from parts of mannequins and the missing parts are animated by the actors. This is a fantastic concept, as it brings a very physical representation of Iago’s manipulation to the stage.
One of the main issues with this production lies in the language barrier. It’s performed in Spanish with English surtitles, however these surtitles are projected onto the side of the back wall rather than somewhere more central – as it is, you have to choose between understanding what they’re saying and watching the physical aspects of the performance. For someone well acquainted with the story this isn’t too much of an issue, but a complete Othello newbie would definitely struggle.
Whilst I did end up mostly watching, with a sea of unintelligible words washing over my ears, I was occasionally drawn to the captions and left slightly bemused at some of the lines – a prime example has to be Cassio getting suspended “for being a jerk”. I’m not one to be overly precious about Shakespeare, but wow… On a more practical note, the captions could do with being different colours according to character/actor to make it easier to follow – and it also feels like some bits are missing from the surtitles, creating a divide between Spanish and non-Spanish speakers.
In general it has a bizarre feel to it, and a potentially unhelpful interpretation and enactment of the text. For one thing, the way Desdemona tries to persuade Othello to reinstate Cassio is definitely suggestive of her having an ulterior motive for asking. But perhaps the weirdest scene involves Iago giving Othello a massage; played for laughs, it completely undermines the seriousness and evil of what is going on.
Aside from these strange choices, there is much to be praised as far as the puppetry goes. Changes are pretty seamless, as each actor lends different body parts (and voices), and the figure of Othello does become rather intimidating as the green-eyed monster grows within him.
In this state, I think the production is possibly most suited to a Latino audience (or anyone with a specific interest in the culture and society of that region) as it feels like there are too many in-jokes or knowing glances for it to have a broad appeal.
My verdict? A good concept, but ultimately a bizarre production with limited appeal – the innovative puppetry is a highlight.
Otelo ran at Southwark Playhouse until 30 September 2017 as part of CASA 2017.