Review: Nothello is a thrilling night's entertainment in Coventry

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Nothello by Mojisola and William Shakespeare, directed by Justine Themen at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Gabriel Akamo (Othello, Otis) and Harris Cain (Nothello). Photo: Robert Day
Gabriel Akamo (Othello, Otis) and Harris Cain (Nothello). Photo: Robert Day

Othello. One of Shakespeare’s most tragic plays.

A black man, a revered general at the height of his powers, falls foul of the wicked rumours spread by his friend Iago, and as a result kills his beloved Desdemona and himself as well.

But what if Desdemona had been pregnant at the time? And what if the story had turned out differently and those children, twins, had been born, mixed race in a time of polarised views: what would they have had to say to their parents?

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    That’s the basic premise of Nothello, the Belgrade Theatre’s lively, sometimes confusing but ultimately triumphant take on the Othello story.

    It begins with the famous scene from Othello in which Emelia (Rayyah McCaul) remonstrates with Othello (Gabriel Akamo) for killing her beloved mistress. This is full-on Shakespearean melodrama, and it would have graced any classical stage. But then someone from the audience keeps interrupting, countering the scene, questioning the sentiments. Ushers try to keep him quiet, but he won’t be stilled. Who is this figure? Why is he trying to tell a different story?

    It turns out he is Nothello (Harris Cain), the doomed couple’s unborn son. And he doesn’t stop there. He, and later his sister Desdeknowhow (Aimee Powell) take his parents to task. The children live in a different world, one in which the stereotypes of race have all but gone. Othello and Desdemona are from the past, when the racial stereotypes we are familiar with today, and which Shakespeare’s Othello and Desdemona helped to promulgate, are not relevant. But how will they bring their two noble parents up to speed?

    I must admit I got lost somewhere in the plot. But I didn’t mind because the action on stage is so energetic, the repartee so sharp, the characterisation so bold, that as in many a Shakespeare play, I was happy to drift a little, enjoying the visual and aural feast before me.

    Key to the drama, alongside the action of the main players, are the two big choruses, made up of children and adults from the Belgrade’s many community programmes. Of these, mention must be made of the part played by Christopher Old as the Duke of Venice. He played a fine dignified old man who by the end gets down with the kids, never losing either his dignity or his twinkle-in-the-eye humour.

    One of the most engaging aspects of the show is the sheer athleticism of the players. This is good physical theatre. For some of the time Nothello and Desdeknowhow are in the womb together; a key scene is their birth.

    Nothello contained just about every theatrical trick you can think of, based on an absurdist plot that at times seemed to stretch credulity. But it worked. It was a thrilling night’s entertainment, and admirably fulfilled the Belgrade’s mission to create excellent theatre for everyone.

    Nothello is the last in the theatre’s season of plays commissioned and presented for Coventry’s City of Culture year. It ended with hope and grounds for a better world brought about, not least, by the magic of theatre.

    Nothello runs until May 21. Visit belgrade.co.uk or call 024 7655 3055 to book.