4Theatre Productions’ cut down version of Paula Vogel’s play, based on female characters in Shakespeare’s Othello, is stylishly presented as some sort of cabaret act from the 1920s, complete with accomplished pianist who also puts in a turn as a cousin – and ex-lover – of Desdemona. That’s right, that faithful young wife is now one who has taken numerous, indeed just about every chap around that isn’t Michael Cassio, and in fact spends one night a week as a whore, giving Bianca – now a prostitute – a night off work (which she uses to spend time with Cassio). The third woman is Emilia, here faithful, though more resigned to marriage with Iago than particularly devoted to him. It is Desdemona who speaks of unfaithfulness to Emilia, reversing Shakespeare’s conversation, though the motive is boredom and a longing for the exotic rather than the original Emilia’s reasons of how men treat women. There are plenty of sexual jokes, particularly at Iago’s expense, inviting the notion that his plots are the result of feelings of sexual inadequacy.
Strong accents are written in for the women, and Desdemona’s terribly posh one, given a louche delivery, takes some getting used to. Bianca’s Cockney works well, though with a few words unclear, but Emilia’s (northern) Irish, not as clearly articulated, obscures phrases and words more often, particularly where cant and unfamiliar language is used. Overall, though, with their set mimetic movements reflecting each other and their dynamic energy, all three speaking directly out front even when in conversation with each other, these performers commit to their style and deliver quite a mesmerising show.
Shorter than its advertised duration, coming in just over 30 minutes, Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief, surprises – even shocks – entertains and provokes some thought about a woman’s lot. The three women each have a place decided for them by their society, their own desires for something different (though the cuts mean Emilia’s aims are not as clear), and must face repercussions for pursuing their longings. The handkerchief itself passes between them, bringing the tale to its somewhat sudden climax, and the company have achieved the success of leaving the audience wanting more.
Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief is at Sweet Grassmarket until 11 Aug at 16:20.