Rosy McEwen



NT Live: Cineworld, Edinburgh

Although we’re watching it in a cinema, Clint Dyer’s Othello is avowedly theatrical, overtly referencing the play’s stage history via a series of projected images as the audience trickles in. It’s a powerful conceit, acknowledging the fact that our interpretations of classic texts change with the times, informing us that this will be an Othello for the 2020s (and far removed from Olivier’s infamous 1960s blackface).

Dyer brings the play’s racism into sharp focus, as well as its sexism. Moving the action to the 1930s means that the widespread bigotry Othello (Giles Terera) endures fits into a recognisable framework of fascism. Brabantio (Jay Simpson), who doesn’t want his daughter to marry ‘a Moor’ – not even a super-soldier, credited with defeating the Turkish army – is far from alone in his prejudice. Indeed, we have a whole System (the chorus), all too willing to endorse his view. Roderigo (Jack Bardoe) is not played here as an amusing fool; instead, he is a jingoist, short on reason but bold in his assertions. Thus, as the only Black actor on stage, Terera’s Othello is isolated and visibly different from those around him, and his relationship with the politically-aware Desdemona (Rosy McEwen) is as much ideological as it is romantic.

In this context, it’s no surprise that an unscrupulous schemer such as Iago (Paul Hilton) can thrive. He is the ultimate embodiment of toxic masculinity, propelled by self-entitlement and envy; Hilton makes this Iago deliciously sinister. He abuses everyone: his wife, Emilia (Tanya Franks) bears the brunt of his frustration, but no one is immune. His bitter resentment sours everything, drags everybody down. Othello doesn’t stand a chance against such an insidious adversary, in such an imbalanced world.

Chloe Lamford’s set is stark and monochrome: a semicircular series of steps, suggestive of a Greek amphitheatre. The chorus heightens this notion, acting as a kind of on-stage audience, reflecting us back at ourselves. We are all the System, it seems to say; we are all complicit. The costumes (by Michael Vale) continue the monochrome theme, highlighting the binary opposition of black and white.

This is an excellent production: bold, contemplative, kinetic and engaging. Terera captures both Othello’s strength and his failings, his dignity and his deficiencies. We see his greatness, but also recognise and despise his misogyny when he tries to justify murdering Desdemona by saying he loved her “too well”. McEwen imbues Desdemona with a steadfast nature, confident and assertive to the end, but it is Franks’ Emilia who really surprises: I’ve never been so aware of her as a victim before, nor of her bravery in finally speaking out.

Dyer’s Othello is a complex, clever piece of work. It’s not a radical reworking – indeed, it’s almost entirely true to Shakespeare’s text – but the lens is very different.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Blue Jean


Cineworld, Edinburgh

It’s hard to remember sometimes, from our current vantage point, just how deeply ingrained homophobia was in 1980s Britain. Writer/director Georgia Oakley’s debut film takes us back to 1988, and the implementation of Margaret Thatcher’s controversial Clause 28, which explicitly banned schools and local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. I was in sixth form then, and I mostly remember finding it ridiculous – as if, without the clause, there would be advertisements everywhere. “Come on, kids! Be gay! It’s great!” But I only had the luxury of dismissing it as stupid because I was straight. I don’t know how it made the gay kids feel. I didn’t know anyone who said they were gay back then (although, of course, many have come out since). I don’t blame them for keeping schtum. I don’t remember the schoolyard as a place that celebrated difference.

Jean (Rosy McEwen) is a PE teacher. She’s also a lesbian, recently divorced from her husband, and enjoying a new relationship with Viv (Kerrie Hayes). But while Viv is at ease with herself – out and proud and politically engaged – Jean is less confident about her sexual identity. She’s still keen to fit in with the heteronormative world; she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself, either at school or with her family. It’s a matter of survival: however shocking it may seem, she’s right to fear her that job is on the line. She manages by drawing a clear distinction between work and home: she lives in a different town from the one she teaches in, and refuses drinks invitations from her colleagues. Her social life revolves around a gay club and a lesbian commune, and here she’s free to be herself.

Until fifteen-year-old Lois (Lucy Halliday) shows up in the club. She’s belligerent and bold – and she’s also Jean’s student. Suddenly, Jean’s worlds collide. Her carefully segregated life is under threat, and she’s torn between fight or flight.

Oakley’s script gives us a clear insight into the era, and into the overt discrimination that permeated popular culture. McEwen shows us a young woman forced into a choice she doesn’t want to make: she has to be a hero or a failure; she can’t just be; the government’s weird preoccupation with consenting adults’ sex lives has a profound impact on real people. Hayes is heartbreaking as Viv, whose clear-eyed view never dulls her pain, and newcomer Halliday is mesmerising on the screen.

Clause 28 was finally repealed in 2003, and things have certainly improved – although, of course, there’s still a way to go. Blue Jean serves as an important reminder of why we can’t ever relax our vigilance, and why we mustn’t let things slide. People’s lives and happiness depend on it.

4 stars

Susan Singfield