Yes, you read that title correctly. I’ve just been to see a mash-up of two of Shakespeare’s plays into one and its name is othellomacbeth. When you think about it, Othello and Macbeth have at their core similar DNA: power, greed and green-eyed monsters capable of turning gullible men into murderous villains. And it’s not just Shakespeare that is being celebrated at the Lyric: the main auditorium is showing off a brand new facelift with 240 litres of fresh paint, 650m2 of new carpet and beautifully clean, buffed and restored Victorian plasterwork.
A bit of old, a bit of new
The evening kicked off with an introduction by Sean Holmes, Artistic Director of the Lyric, who is leaving this month for pastures new. Actress Kayla Meikle followed with the original inauguration text which Lillie Langtry read in 1895 on the opening night of the Lyric Opera House, as it was then known.
It’s easy to forget you’re sitting in an original Victorian theatre when you visit the Lyric. The building’s skin is contemporary, and so are its common parts. The productions boldly re-interpret the old or push the boundaries of contemporary set design, writing and directing. The Lyric is my local, and I always think of it as much more than a theatre: it’s an educational hub and somewhere I like to take my kids to expand their enquiring minds.
And that’s where I think othellomacbeth excels. The plays are pared down into two one-hour, easily digestible chunks with a cast of nine playing interchanging characters. The first part is, you guessed it, Othello, and the second is Macbeth. I took my eleven-year old Anais with me, as she is currently studying Macbeth at school. She had never read Othello, but by the end of the first half, which focused on the tale of the Moor and his ill-fated wife, Anais was in rapturous applause. Thanks to bite-size directing by Jude Christian, younger minds will understand this innovative approach to Shakespeare, much like my generation did with Bernard Miles and Favourite Tales from Shakespeare.
A noble setting for an English play
The set design is by Basia Bińkowska, winner of the Linbury Prize 2017, the UK’s most prestigious award for stage design. Othello’s steely stage-wide curtain provides a gritty backdrop for the violent relationship between Othello (Ery Nzaramba) and his new bride and torment, Desdemona (Kirsten Foster). As the play moves forward towards its murderous conclusion, the curtain becomes pot-marked with traces of Othello’s physical violence towards his helpless wife.
So how do you stage these two plays into one? The sweet, innocent and maligned females from Othello get angry, and they get even, morphing into Macbeth’s three witches. As we roll into the second half, the set opens into a zen-space, a solitary tree and rocking chair taking centre-stage. All appears calm, but the three witches are quietly caressing the strings of destiny towards the play’s homicidal, raging end.
“Where shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain? When the hurlyburly ‘s done, when the battle’s lost and won?”
And just as the Lyric’s contemporary spaces remind us we’re living in the 21st century, there are few traces of the 16th century in othellomacbeth. It’s all guns, booze and fags-a-plenty, with some girl power fashion for the ladies.
Who doesn’t love Bernard Miles’s unique pared-down re-interpretation of the Bard’s plays? othellomacbeth will, like Tales, appeal to those who are open to an original approach to the works of the greatest storyteller of all time. Just expect the unexpected.
othellomacbeth is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 3 November.
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