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Review: Othello at Liverpool Everyman ****

Cyprus is the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite – Greek goddess of love.

But where there’s love there’s also hate, as Shakespeare’s brutal military-set tragedy underlines, not least with its abundant final body count.

Setting the action in a specific community (an army) on an island allowed Shakespeare to generate an intense, febrile, claustrophobic atmosphere, as the protagonists move between limited locations and from simmering resentment to all out murderous action.

So far, so Bard. But the twist in this new production, directed by Gemma Bodinetz, has been the headline-making decision to change the sex of the main character, with Golda Rosheuvel (celebrating her birthday on press night) taking on the mantle of the Moorish military leader.

It adds extra considerations of sexuality, gender - and an extra layer of prejudice - to the tale’s existing themes of race, class, rank, loyalty, trust, authority and isolation.

Does it change the dynamics of the actual narrative? Not in any physically seismic fashion, but it does concentrate the mind and make you pay more attention to each line delivered and act committed.

Most of those lines take on the change of gender in natural fashion, while a few feel odd. If you’re going to use the word ‘husband’ to describe Othello, you need to see those ironic quote marks hanging in the air.

Othello remains still, essentially, Iago’s play. The consummate villain, ‘honest’ Iago gets most of the best monologues, while we follow his wily, twisting Machiavellian moves with a mixture of rising horror and reluctant admiration.

Iago (Patrick Brennan) Photo: Jonathan Keenan

Patrick Brennan, head shorn and bespectacled, is a Belial in battle dress, gliding silkily and stealthily between truths, half-truths and untruths, although his opening speech, delivered in a relentless angry torrent, is patchily – and annoyingly - unclear.

But Rosheuvel as the ‘old black dam’ Othello fights Iago’s narrative dominance every step of the way with a powerfully coherent performance as a general battling with very human emotions, a successful military leader who, when it comes to matters of the heart, lets the enemy within outflank her at every turn.

It’s also a physical performance. She may be a woman, but she commands – both at the conference table, and also getting stuck in to break up a street fight, while as Othello’s peace of mind becomes increasingly fragile she prowls the perimeter of the stage like a big cat in a zoo.

Rosheuvel’s warrior woman won the heart of the Venetian jewel Desdemona with her tales of how she defied the odds to find success.

This is a love forged against the world. But while they’re physically affectionate, there needs to be more of a frisson of society-defying sexual chemistry between Othello and Emily Hughes’ young Venetian. You want to see the raw power of their love which then becomes flammable fuel for Othello's jealousy.

Golda Rosheuvel and Emily Hughes as Othello and Desdemona. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

With so many high emotions unfolding in the densely-plotted narrative, there’s joyful light relief in the form of Cerith Flinn as Cassio, Marc Elliott’s credulous fop Roderigo - played like a fiddle by Iago, and YEP actor Leah Gould as the adoring and feisty courtesan Bianca.

Flinn’s trusty lieutenant disgraces himself in rip-roaring British lad abroad fashion, with the actor one of the most believable stage drunks I’ve ever seen.

Talking of the stage, designers Molly Lacey Davies, Natalie Johnson and Jocelyn Meall have opted for a barely-there set which leaves the audience’s attention purely focussed on the action.

The exception is the final minutes, where the marital bed rises from the stage floor to meet floating, delicately-translucent white drapes dropped from above, standing in stark contrast to the brutality of the scene, and shrouding it while still revealing the action to all four sides of the auditorium.

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