OthelloMacbeth, directed by Jude Christian, brings together two of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies into a single two-hour play. These plays are condensed into two parts, the first being Othello, with Macbeth forming the second half of the production. The main motive behind compressing these plays is to provide a retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and inviting a fresh perspective on them. By removing all scenes which do not include women, OthelloMacbeth aims to shine a spotlight on Shakespeare’s iconic female characters, bringing their narratives to the forefront of these male dominated plays. This is designed to highlight the patriarchal society in which Shakespeare’s plays are set. Performed by a company of actors, who move seamlessly from Othello to Macbeth, this play is experimental and runs huge risks by truncating texts that have been an integral part of British culture for over 400 years.
An abridged Othello forms the first half of OthelloMacbeth. It savagely removes all of Iago’s soliloquies, and all of his decisive scenes alone with Othello, Roderigo and Cassio. Its objective is to focus instead on the stories of Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca; portraying how they are all wronged by the male characters in Shakespeare’s play. The problem with this is that the narrative becomes disjointed and the heart and soul is ripped out of Othello. By erasing Iago’s soliloquies, his manipulation, corruption and malevolence is bypassed, obscuring the root cause of Othello’s jealousy. OthelloMacbeth cuts the critical scene where Iago reveals his suspicions to Othello, that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, having gifted him the precious handkerchief. This pivotal scene is reduced to Iago’s hasty warning:-
“Beware my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
the meat it feeds on.”
The removal of the rest of this scene means that OthelloMacbeth jumps straight into Othello accusing Desdemona of being a whore before he knows that her handkerchief is missing, that it is in Cassio’s possession and before he has seen the couple together, which all propel the suspicions planted by Iago. This makes Othello’s slip into a jealous rage feels ridiculous, rather than tragic. It actually received laughter from some in the audience. Crucially, by erasing Iago’s poisonous manipulative accusations, there is no evident reason why Othello would believe Iago’s words over Desdemona’s passionate pleas that she is innocent. She is basically murdered because Othello sees the handkerchief in Cassio’s hand. Crucially, she is also killed off-stage, removing the tragedy in her demise. By deleting these critical parts of the play, the essence of the play is missing, events are propelled at a preposterous speed, and there is a lack of a true connection with any of the characters. This is irritating as Kirsten Foster is a great Desdemona and Melissa Johns gives a strong performance as Emilia. It is just a shame they aren’t given enough material to really develop their characters. I would love to see these actresses play these roles in their entirety.
Even some of the crucial lines of the female characters have been removed. Rather than empowering the women, OthelloMacbeth simply reduces the audience’s connection to them, providing snapshots of their characters, rather than fully rounded narratives. You only need to look at the Globe Theatre’s current production of Othello to see that Shakespeare’s female characters are already strong, iconic women, without the need for abridgement. Sheila Atim’s forceful portrayal of Emilia shows that Shakespeare’s men do not have to be removed from the plays in order to shine a spotlight on the female characters. Emilia’s powerful tirade against Othello is proof of this. Yet in OthelloMacbeth, this poignant speech loses its force due to it being compressed. For me, abridging Othello into 1 hour 10 minutes hinders every character’s development, including the female roles. Rather than adding a fresh perspective to the play, it made me mourn the parts that were missing. Shakespeare’s plays revolve around his wonderful characters and poetry. The popularity of these female characters has endured for over 400 years without removing the parts of the play that do not include them. This is why the first half of OthelloMacbeth failed to impress me, until its end, when Emilia, Desdemona and Bianca turn into Macbeth‘s witches with the line ‘when shall we three meet again?’, setting the scene for the second half of the play.
In complete contrast to the first half, Macbeth was superbly edited, keeping the essence of Shakespeare’s play, its characters, and its narrative. Whereas condensing Othello did not work, doing so with Macbeth was a stroke of genius. Macbeth’s soliloquies, including the famous ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ remain in the play. Although shortened, they allow the audience to catch critical glimpses of his desire for power and his motivation behind the murder of the king. To strengthen this, the witches remain ever present on stage, reminding the audience of the root cause of Macbeth’s thirst for power. When a murder takes place, the witches brilliantly mirror the murderer, with blood on their hands, highlighting who is really responsible for these horrific crimes. Truncating the poignant scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, following the murder of Duncan, works wonderfully, intensifying the paranoia and madness of their characters after committing a foul deed. Likewise, the scene where Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost also benefits from being edited. Turning Macbeth into a raving madman makes Lady Macbeth’s line, ‘you have displaced the mirth’, truly funny. Cutting Macbeth adds a new perspective onto his character by making him commit the murders he usually hires an assassin to undertake, swiftly turning Macbeth into a ruthless, cold-blooded murderer. The brutality of this play is starkly revealed as Macbeth embarks on a murderous rampage, even savagely garrotting one of his victims. Sandy Grierson excels in this role and is one of the best Macbeths I have seen.
Caroline Faber was equally brilliant as Lady Macbeth. Her portrayal was more powerful than any other I have watched. She remains on stage throughout the majority of the play, caressing a blanket, looking like a swaddled baby. This really helped emphasise her femininity, rather than her being a ruthless, heartless killer. Echoing her earlier speech with Macbeth about the baby, this parallel also makes Lady Macbeth’s demise all the more tragic. Although, the iconic ‘out, damned spot’ speech is removed from OthelloMacbeth, it is ingeniously replaced with Othello’s ‘speak of one that loved not wisely but too well’ and matches this situation perfectly, adding more pathos to her suicide. There are other parts in Macbeth where Othello overlaps, such as a beautiful moment where Banquo’s ghost (previously Othello) gives a witch (previously Desdemona) the handkerchief back, as a symbolic way of apology. Whereas cutting Othello resulted in the tragedy being removed from Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth successfully accentuates the tragedy of the narrative. This is most evident when Macduff finds out the fate of his wife and children. Although this scene is edited, Samuel Collings perfectly turns Macduff’s disbelief into sheer grief and devastation as the appalling news sinks in. For me, this was the most striking moment in the play.
OthelloMacbeth is a play of two completely contrasting halves. A frustrating, condensed version of Othello gives way to a fantastic Macbeth. Quite a few members of the audience left during the interval, unfortunately missing one of the most thrilling, intense, captivating versions of Macbeth I have ever seen. I just wish that both plays were performed in their entirety, as separate shows, because the cast were superb, Macbeth was excellent, and Othello showed promise. However, it really doesn’t need to be ripped apart in order for the female characters to shine. The male characters, Iago in particular, are essential to keeping the essence of the play and making the narrative coherent.
Photo Credits – Helen Murray