Bruiser bring their physical adaptation to the Derry Playhouse

The Playhouse Theatre in Derry is packed to capacity. Unsurprising, given that Belfast-based Bruiser Theatre Company are town. Well established and respected specialists of physical theatre, tonight they turn their hand to Shakespeare's Othello.

Adapted by Patrick J O'Reilly, directed by Lisa May and produced by Stephen Beggs, it promises to be a 'gritty, breathless two-hour drama'. The set is minimalist (typically Bruiser), comprising two grey staircases and five wooden door frames which, by methods of simple (though skilful) choreography, are used to create the play’s various locations: a grand hallway, an amphitheatre, a graveyard.

The ‘backdrop’ consists of hanging Commedia Del-Arte masks, adorned with red ribbon - they hint teasingly at the bloody nature of the coming ‘tradgedie’, and create an effective sense of foreboding. This affect is heightened by Frenzy NI's soundtrack, which, although featured sparingly in this production, is well considered when it is.

The play opens to a motley chorus of whispering voices, conjuring up images of jealous inner-demons manipulating a tormented soul. They give way to Iago’s own manipulative whisperings, the catalyst for the play’s essential conflict. Devlin convincingly plays a typically unlikely deviant: seemingly benign, almost hapless. Paired up with the much put-upon Roderigo, he also provides many moments of comic relief.

Here, the characterisation would benefit from a little more variation in pace and perhaps a few more ‘dark moments’. After all, Iago is essentially as tormented as Othello himself becomes. That is not always clear in this characterisation.

Central to the story is the love between Othello (Stanley Browne) and Desdemona (Clare McMahon), which Iago seeks to destroy in revenge for Othello’s failure to promote him. The success of the ‘tradgedie’ depends on convincing the audience of the strength of that love. A notable lack of chemistry between the two actors, perhaps undermines that here. The playing of the lovers also feels old fashioned.

Browne cuts a fine figure of a Colonel (the characters appear to be soldiers), brooding and well built, with considerable stage presence. However, when Othello becomes over-run by jealousy, these feelings are portrayed almost exclusively as anger and shouting. It can be almost comical, leaving the audience sniggering with discomfort instead of riveted to the action.

The cast in general deserve praise for their command of Shakespearean language. They deliver their lines with ease and confidence, making the play all the more accessible and engaging. Performances of note come from Terence Keeley (as Roderigo, Lodovico, and Bianca), and Dagmar Doring (as Emilia, Montano, Brabantio).

This production is faithful to its roots. At times too much so, with the goal of making the play ‘relevant’ to contemporary society a little lost. Nonetheless this is a great way to experience Shakespeare. The exaggerated discipline of Physical Theatre has much to offer its classical counterparts. The fact that the show is ‘sold out’ is testament to that. Overall this is a very enjoyable production that keeps the audience engaged from beginning to end.