Adapting Othello the Bruiser Way

Patrick J O'Reilly talks about working on 'one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies'

When Bruiser Theatre Company decided to stage an adaptation of Othello they got Patrick J O'Reilly to write it for them. CultureNorthernIreland met with the writer (and actor and director, depending on his hat) at the rehearsals to talk about the play.

Since the cast were in the middle of a scene, the interview took place on the steps outside… in the cold. Never let it be said CultureNorthernIreland doesn’t suffer for art.

‘I was playing Buttons in Cinderella in Armagh,’ he explains, tucking his hands under his elbows. ‘So my life was just full of panto. Then I got a call from Stephen Beggs (Bruiser's Company Manager) asking if I would be interested in adapting one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: Othello.’

Obviously, seeing as we are freezing our bottoms off while they rehearse, the answer was ‘yes’. O'Reilly admits that it was a daunting prospect at first. Not only was it Shakespeare, it was a play he was passionate about.

‘I love the power and beauty of the language in Othello,’ O'Reilly says. ‘I love the plot, the domestic estrangement of two lovers. It is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays that deals with such domestic, human issues.’

What O'Reilly needed was a hook, a new way of telling the story to make it as relevant today as it was when it was first staged. After some research into other adaptations, he found one: Iago, the villain of the piece.

It is Iago's malicious whispering campaign that drives Othello into delusional paranoia about his wife Desdemona’s faithfulness and leads to the tragic final act. But he is a compelling, charismatic villain: the character, O'Reilly points out, that every actor wants a chance to play and the one he structured his adaptation around.

‘In a way, Iago is quite honest,’ O'Reilly points out. ‘He wants revenge and he tells us from the beginning that he wants revenge. What I want is for the audience to like him and then be dismayed when they realize what he’s done. To go, “Oh no, why was I sympathetic to his cunning, his comedy, his sense of irony? I can’t believe I followed him for so long!”’

The decision to spin the play around Iago’s character might sound like a major alteration, but O'Reilly disagrees. He has cut the play from its original, bladder-numbing three-and-a-half hours to a more manageable two, but what remains is loyal to Shakespeare’s original text. O'Reilly even used an old folio for his source material to preserve the style of language.

‘People always say, “Don’t touch Shakespeare, Shakespeare shouldn’t be touched." But I think you can adapt the play, and still very much work with the playwright. I didn’t take Othello and rip it apart to create my own play, it is still very much Shakespeare’s text.’

But would Shakespeare have recognized it? Bruiser Theatre Company have produced some very challenging, clever plays - does the high tragedy of Othello mesh with the exaggerated physical theatre that is their trademark?

‘Absolutely,’ O'Reilly says. ‘Bruiser is the perfect company to take a play like this on-board. Their physical style – the sharp, very visual slapstick – lends itself well to Shakespeare and to this play in particular. It is all about Iago’s control, his manipulation of the rest of the cast. He’s a puppeteer and that lends itself very well to Bruiser’s sense of cause and effect and movement.’

To heighten the concept of Iago as a puppeteer – and to help adapt from Shakespeare’s original cast of nine to this production's six – O'Reilly has dipped into the aesthetic of the commedia dell’arte. The cast are masked and constantly on-stage, playing both on the idea of being two-faced and on Iago’s oath by Janus, the god with two faces.

The one thing that O'Reilly did change, however – just a little – is the ending of the play, although he is cagey about how. All he’ll say is that, ‘Since I used Iago and his words I thought it was important to let him have his final say.’

Check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On to find out where to see Othello.