Roughly ninety seconds before the lights go down, Helen Coles (Desdemona) approaches me. ‘Seen anything good at the Fringe this year? I’ve got a day off tomorrow and I want to see so much.’ The whole cast is chatting away to us and each other as though it’s a casual dress rehearsal. The lights dim and Coles whispers, ‘Oh there’s the lights. Better go! Great talking to you…’ then instantly switches into one of strongest portrayals of Desdemona I’ve seen at a Fringe show in five years. Confidence, it turns out, really is the key.
It’s not just Coles who exudes a quiet confidence. I’ve seen many Shakespeare attempts at the Fringe, and all-female company Smooth Faced Gentlemen – best-known up to now for their critically acclaimed Titus Andronicus – are as polished as they come. Not that this means they take themselves too seriously; the most impressive feat of this production is how funny they’ve managed to make Othello. I often think a lot of Fringe-goers avoid Shakespeare’s tragedies because they think they’re not as entertaining as say, Much Ado About Nothing, but those people are missing out on this production’s stunning comedic timing and sparkling wit.
As much as the Bard is to thank for this, it’s also down to the ability of Smooth Faced Gentlemen to trim a hefty-plot driven play into an abbreviated version which not only flows beautifully, but keeps all the laughs in. A particular highlight is the scene in which the officers drink, and Cassio starts a brawl. The humour is only made stronger by the slightly B-grade blood effects.
The acting is wonderful too. As already mentioned, Coles makes a fantastic Desdemona, a character who I often struggle with in other productions; here, she’s both charming and ballsy. Anita Joy Uwejah demands our attention as Othello, first with subtle charm then with explosive and unpredictable anger. But it’s Henri Merriam as Emilia who steals the scene, with the bedchamber chat with Desdemona about the nature of husbands and marriage. It was here that the female control of this production made itself known, and where I most appreciated it.
Personally I thought the character of Iago (played by Ashlea Kaye) could have been brought to another level, but perhaps this is down to the fact that among such a strong cast Iago's role is a little overshadowed. There’s also some very clever staging with the use of door frames and Venetian blinds, bringing a sense of voyeurism to the play, and throwing focus on a tragedy largely concerned with domestic affairs.
On the whole, this is a production you must see if you’re looking for Shakespeare at the Fringe. It combines compelling drama with clever humour, producing a well-rounded adaptation of Othello that holds your attention for the full seventy minutes. So if I had to describe it in one word? Smooth.