Ayoola Smart as Desdemona, Okorie Chukwu as Othello in Othello
Ayoola Smart as Desdemona, Okorie Chukwu as Othello in Othello
©Graham Michael 2018

Ignace Cornelissen has a knack for simplifying Shakespeare into child-friendly tales – and he heads straight for the hard stuff too. No Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night's Dream for this Belgian scribe. He's turned Henry V into a petulant playground bully, and served up a sceptical Winter's Tale in which statues stayed statues and the dead remained dead. Without ever sugar-coating or censoring, Cornelissen reshapes Shakespeare's stories to teach kids big truths.

His Othello's no different. Light-hearted, but dark, it's undaunted by death at the tragedy's heart. Crucially, it removes the play's racism – and for good reason. Why expose young audiences to a dangerous example? But for all director Ian Nicholson delivers a serviceable, if slight, Othello-lite with an all-black cast, he misses the subtle subversion lurking beneath Cornelissen's script.

"I hate magicians," sneers Lawrence Walker's dastardly Iago early on. It's treated, here, as a throwaway remark – something to lighten the tragedy's tone and bring characters to its audience's level. In fact, that line holds the key to the whole. Cornelissen's out to show the tricks society plays on us all; that the differences which divide us are built on social sleights of hand. Nationality, rank and privilege – the things that turn us against one another are all conjured from nothing.

It's an intricate through-line that Nicholson and designer James Button either overlook or ignore. Starting with Cassio's promotion over Iago – three new stars on his arm confer him high status, as if by magic – Cornelissen repeatedly flags up similar sorceries: the crown-like hat that instills Ricky Fearon's Doge his power, the chance victories underpinning Othello's rise through the ranks, the silver-spooned privilege that makes Ayoola Smart's Desdemona so eligible. These are the motors of envy and acrimony, and Cornelissen reveals them all as airy inventions.

Ditto cultural differences. If Okorie Chukwu's goofy African-accented Othello seems out of sorts in Venice, it's because he's viewed as an exotic outsider, knocked for his flimsy grasp of local customs and cutlery. Yet by linking his 'magic' handkerchief, supposedly hand-stitched by a witch, to Desdemona's superstitions that the stars are dead souls, Cornelissen implies that we're all, at heart, the same – all as irrational and 'exotic' as each other. The things that differentiate and divide us – just like the borders between warring enemies Italy and Turkey – are concocted from nothing.

All this is crying out for a magic show style staging that, despite soldiers wearing David Blaine-like blacks and billowing white veils, never fully materialises. Iago is, after all, the ultimate trickster. He winds his way into Othello's brain and here, fools Ronald Nsubuga's Cassio into drunkenness with a nifty cup trick. Indeed, the whole play hinges on a disappearing handkerchief – an illusionist's staple.

Without it, however, we get a straightforward Shakespearean précis that serves as a likeable, larky introduction, but not a lot more. It still casts a spell, but the point disappears in a puff of smoke.

Othello runs at the Unicorn Theatre until 3 March