Edinburgh Fringe visit: Othello – two men

Othello – Two Men is a retelling of the Shakespearean play, in the space of one hour and played by, as suggested by the title, two men. It’s a cut-down version in a cut-down set – simply a free-standing frame to stand in for a prison wall (see image at the bottom of this page). But with only two characters to focus on, the drama becomes that much more intense.

Kim Hyung-gyun (Othello) and Kim Sung-gyeom (Iago)
Kim Hyung-gyun (Othello) and Kim Sung-gyeom (Iago) rehearse in a studio

Othello and Iago are imprisoned after being captured in a military campaign. Every now and then one of the characters leaves the prison cell, presumably to be interrogated by their captors, because they later return to the cell much bloodied. But in the monotonous hours between their torture sessions the two men have plenty of time to talk. Iago, jealous of Cassio – Othello’s trusted lieutenant – suggests bit by bit to Othello that his wife Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. The laborious pacing with which the poisonous suggestions are insinuated into Othello’s mind is calculated to inflame his jealousy.

There are two actors, but more than two characters.

MJ Company promote their production of Othello
MJ Company promote their production of Othello on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

We are presented with a flashback of Othello’s wedding – in which the same two actors play the parts of Desdemona and her father. Iago reminds Othello that Desdemona’s father had warned him that Desdemona would deceive him one day – and this supports the deceitful story that Iago is constructing to get rid of Cassio. Later on, Iago plays the role of Desdemona being questioned about her alleged infidelity by Othello. If this particular part of the play is mildly homoerotic, the production is nevertheless extremely powerful for its simplicity. The one drawback with having a cast of two is that, at the end, you are unsure whether it is Iago or Desdemona that Othello has strangled. Perhaps this ambiguity was intended.

In a recent radio interview, Edinburgh International Festival Sir Jonathan Mills agreed that it would be good one day to see Asian theatre companies coming to the UK to perform material other than reinterpretations of Shakespeare. But somehow this cut-down version is very successful in its rapier-like dissection of the psychology of jealousy. The relationship between the two central characters reminds one of the hierarchy between members of a gang in a typical Korean gangster flick, and indeed if it wasn’t for the names of the characters (and for the Shakespearean language of the surtitles) you could forget that this production was based on a western play at all. It could easily be a tribute to Lee Chang-dong’s Green Fish.

Choi Moo-youl rehearses his vocals
Choi Moo-youl rehearses his vocals on the cut-down stage at the Merchants’ Hall, Edinburgh

This play won Best Director at The Korean Shakespeare Awards 2012. A special mention goes to the vocalist Choi Moo-youl who provided sensitive and heartfelt musical interludes to the play.

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Othello – Two Men was at Spotlites@The Merchants’ Hall, 20 Aug ~ 24 Aug 2013. All photos kindly provided by MJ Company

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