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September 25, 2011

Othello (Sheffield Theatres) @ The Crucible

Writing about web page http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/index.cfm?fuseaction=whatson.production&ProductionID=1152

I’m not usually an advocate of celebrity casting. I didn’t see any of the star-name Shakespeares of the summer: Kevin Spacey in Richard III, Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest, or David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado about Nothing. However, I’m too big a fan of The Wire to have risked missing Daniel Evans’s new production of Othello in Sheffield, conveniently just up the road from my new home in Nottingham. Reuniting Clarke Peters and Dominic West, this was the thinking person’s celebrity show.

Othello publicity art

The Crucible is an exciting space, here featuring a large bare thrust with a stone background, dominated by a huge set of doors. The acoustics of the space were dismal, however, with several actors struggling to be heard. Little practical problems such as this blighted the production throughout: fluffed lines, awkward pauses and a horrible moment when Peters found himself unable to draw his sword from the bed, causing him to toss the dead Desdemona’s head about rather roughly as he struggled to liberate it.

These unintentional difficulties, however, were reflected in other uneven moments that were deliberate. Lucy Carter’s lighting design was frequently effective (the gloom of the opening scene; the gradual increase of exposure towards a balmy heat in the play’s second half) but often inexplicable. Why, after establishing a beautiful darkness for the opening scene, were the lights raised so much for the second scene which also takes place in the dead of night? Why switch from relatively natural lighting states representing atmosphere to the abstract use of lighting to create a confined stage space for the willow scene? Why introduce a lighthouse-style moving spot for one random scene change? The set was more consistent, the mostly bare stage allowing for the appearance of a large bed in the final scene to shift the dynamic dramatically.

Despite these problems, Evans offered a traditional and decent production of Othello that particularly benefitted from the evenness of Peters and West. Both held the stage with consummate ease, and just as generously yielded it when not needed. West was particularly skilful at blending unobtrusively into the background in the earlier scenes, gradually coming more to the forefront. His interpretation, with a thick Sheffield accent, echoed Ian McKellen’s in Trevor Nunn’s famous RSC production in treating Iago as a bluff Northern soldier, whose plain speech and manners meant that others repeatedly underestimated him. His crudity following the tempest was pointedly disliked by the other characters, and his casual behaviour towards his peers drew occasional scorn from Cassio. It was an effective approach to Iago that made especial use of subtle expressions – his “I like not that” and “indeed” were entirely natural, yet the note of suspicion contrasted so well with his usual bluffness that Othello couldn’t help but pick up on it.

Peters was a dignified, slow-moving Othello, who took his time to stroll around the stage and react. He spoke carefully, in a deep voice, and allowed himself plenty of time to think before replying to Iago. As the rot set in, the cracks began to show. Peters offered the most believable epileptic fit I’ve ever seen onstage, allowing his words to gradually speed up and break down, his body becoming locked into his stutters and finally collapsing. His careful dignity also made his subsequent outbursts more pointed, and the moment where he slapped Desdemona was especially difficult to watch.

Other performances were less strong. The young Lily James was an affecting Desdemona, who maintained a self-possession even during her abuse by Othello that felt surprisingly modern; but Alexandra Gilbreath’s Emilia was quite tiresome. Played as a Mistress Quickly/Nancy-from-Oliver! Cockney maid, her performance was based around mugging, saucy innuendo and hands-on-hips indignation. As the second half went on, she became much better, her jaunty persona giving way to a more interesting fierce loyalty to the wronged Desdemona that allowed more of the character’s depth to be seen. Colin George as Brabantio, meanwhile, seemed barely to notice the words he was reciting during the first two scenes, where expression and sense were both entirely absent.

As ever, the drinking scene was a particular highlight, with Montano (Luciano Dodero) unusually prominent as Iago got the revellers to pour their dregs into a single goblet that Gwilym Lee’s Cassio was forced to down. Lee did excellent work in the role, creating a very human Cassio whose attempts to drunkenly assert his sobriety were realistic rather than merely funny. Brodie Ross complimented Cassio in this scene and others, exaggerating the foppish aspects of the character while rarely making him ridiculous (save for in the very entertaining “incontinence” passage, where he wailed comically). Ian Barritt’s Clown was also surprisingly funny.

A few other moments stood out. James’s singing during the willow scene was not only beautiful, but poignant and vulnerable, and it was from this point that Gilbreath reined in her excesses as Emilia. The storm was fully created with thunder and lightning effects, over which the actors attempted to scream; and the scene in which Cassio and Iago discuss Bianca was simple but absolutely clear. Iago stood between Othello and Cassio, angling his body to explicitly control what Othello could and could not hear.

This was Iago and Othello’s show, however. I would have liked to have seen more go on beneath Iago’s façade, particularly as West’s pauses and careful swallows after mentions of his wife’s infidelity suggested a very specific motive for his anger that was realised brutally as he pinned Emilia to the floor and kissed her in order to get the handkerchief, before kicking her off the stage. His relationship with Peters was riveting, however, and their long shared scene was the most obviously rehearsed aspect of the whole production. The two batted single words and raised voices back and forth, orchestrating the temptation in a captivating and entirely believable manner, giving a sense of Iago’s truly insidious nature.

This has the potential to be a much better production once the company have relaxed and the kinks are ironed out. While it suffered from a few very weak performances and an overly traditional approach, this remained a faithful and often fascinating Othello that understood the importance of getting its two lead characters front and centre on a bare stage and letting them work. While it was a relief to see these priorities, however, the central relationship needs to be better supported by the rest of the production in order for it to be great.


April 08, 2009

Othello (Northern Broadsides) @ The Belgrade Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk/PAGES/currentproduction.htm

Othello
Othello publicity art

The new Northern Broadsides production of Othello has caused something of a stir this year, with countless articles and interviews devoted to the novelty of one of Britain's most beloved comedians, Lenny Henry CBE, jumping in at the deep end with his first theatrical Shakespearean role. Broadsides are an ensemble company who rarely indulge in star actors, meaning that Henry's casting has drawn a great deal of unprecedented attention to the work of Barrie Rutter, Conrad Nelson and their team. Happily, both Henry and Broadsides have risen to the challenge and created a solid, enjoyable Othello that shows off the company's strengths.

The production’s main pleasures came from the contrast between Henry’s Othello and Nelson’s Iago. Othello was a large man, deep of voice and slow of movement. Iago, however, was wiry and fast. In their shared scenes, Othello was left doddering in the centre of the stage while Iago moved quickly around the edges, surrounding Othello and pressing in on him from all sides. Their movements mirrored their respective thought patterns; Henry’s Othello was not stupid, but took his time responding to new ideas and thoughts, while Iago skipped constantly ahead, trying to keep up with the momentum of his own schemes. Othello was by far the more powerful of the two, but he was simply outpaced by Iago and left clutching wildly at means to deal with information he had no time to process. The innate violence of the character was drawn out by his immediate and instinctive return to graphic threats.

Othello’s simplicity and gravitas combined to make him the anchoring presence in every scene he appeared in. His self-defence to the Duke against Brabantio’s complaints saw him stand stock-still centre-stage and use plain words and accent to justify himself. In Henry’s Midlands accent, the rhetoric felt natural and believable, the honesty and honour of his words coming through rather than any sense of artificial style. This less-is-more approach characterised Henry’s performance throughout, usually to great effect: the unfiltered joy with which he greeted Desdemona in Cyprus, the immediate strength with which he separated Montano and Cassio, the bewildered and increasingly angry expression on his face during the temptation scenes, all contributed to the effect of a plain man being destroyed by external forces.

Henry wasn’t faultless, by any means. His movement was often extremely stilted and uncomfortable, notably during his epileptic fit where he knelt, then deliberately threw himself to the floor, then began convulsing, all movements slightly disjointed from each other. He also had an occasional tendency to gabble words. These small negatives were easily forgotten, though, in the light of his strengths. His slowness made those few moments of physical exertion all the more effective, most impressively as he hurled a knife at Iago in anger which stuck, quivering, in a drawing board (spectacularly done, and the programme reveals a knife-throwing coach was brought in especially). Henry excelled, too, in a moving final scene that saw him retreat further into himself, still and defeated as he sat on the edge of Desdemona’s bed and stabbed himself, before crashing off the bed as he attempted to kiss his dead wife. The injustice of his end even seemed to filter through to Iago, whose vindictive laughter ceased as he stared at his master in sober discomfort.

Iago owned the production throughout, dominating the stage from the sidelines rather than from Othello’s central position. This soldier made a particularly effective show of his service to Othello, snapping out salutes and acknowledgements with military efficiency and performing his duties with a diligent yet casual attitude that suggested his enjoyment of carrying out orders. This was only a show, however, and Nelson’s Yorkshire lilt brought a sneering unpleasantness to Iago’s sexually graphic imagery and sick jokes. He despised Emilia, pointedly not taking her overcoat while collecting those of the other new arrivals in Cyprus, and never let his hatred for other characters slip too far below the surface, for example standing over Othello and smiling evilly as the latter woke from his fit. He was a skilful manipulator, and the temptation scene was a masterclass in the subtleties of sowing suspicion, catching Othello’s eye at key moments in order to emphasise those words useful to his aims.

Unfortunately, the two central performances were not matched by those of their wives. Jessica Harris began interestingly as Desdemona, a young and jubilant housewife with few airs or formalities. Her joyful disregard of decorum offended her father deeply (their relationship reminded me of Victorian new money, Northern mill owners striking rich and attempting to adjust their characters to high class society) as she took Othello’s arm and hugged him in front of the Duke. Her playfulness affected the grave Othello, bringing rare smiles to his face as he indulged her enthusiasm. However, the enthusiasm grew quickly wearing, and Harris’ delivery of lines was weak and monotonous. The second act allowed her to develop some more depth, in particular becoming extremely fearful of Othello after he threw her to the floor. Her subsequent terror at approaching him was interesting, but spoiled by her flipping too quickly between fear with Othello, carefree gossip with Emilia in the bedroom and then abject terror yet again while singing the Willow song.

Maeve Larkin's Emilia was similarly mixed. Mannered, wry and very still, she made an ideal waiting maid, and her matter-of-fact commentary provided the perfect antithesis to Desdemona’s sunny disposition. However, her speech and movement were too finely choreographed to be convincing. She continually addressed a fixed point in the middle distance, and her movement consisted of extremely precise steps and gestures in perfect synchronicity with her words, leaving her whole performance looking extremely artificial. This became a crucial weakness in the final scenes where her carefully controlled shouts and complaints were completely insufficient for the content and tone of her dire situation and overwhelming grief.

While the female characters grated, the remainder of the production was generally entertaining. The standout scene saw the evening revels turned into a drinking game of epic proportions, expertly choreographed and infectiously funny. The revellers arrived with brass and drums to sing the Cannikin song over and over again, each time passing a full tankard down the line of revellers, with he who held it at the end of the song obliged to down the whole cup. Much visual comedy was found in Cassio’s early attempts to avoid the cup by changing places in line, to no effect as the rest of the men conspired to make sure it kept returning to him. As the scene progressed, though, Cassio’s temper was allowed to slowly develop, each cup leaving him louder and more aggressive until his angry protestations of sobriety were countered by him falling offstage through a door. Extending this scene and giving Cassio time to build up to his attack on Roderigo was effective, and also allowed Iago to be seen working patiently at setting up his victims.

Costumes located the production in a broadly Edwardian period, though several outfits had additional resonances – the red berets of Iago and his fellow soldiers evoked modern military units such as the Black Watch, emphasised in Iago’s military manner, while the neckties and long skirts of the ladies are perhaps more associated with the American West, the practical outfits of working women in a man’s world. Ruari Murchison’s set, however, was Venice through and through, an enormous central pillar dividing a high stone balcony on one side from a series of tall slatted wooden doors on the other. These aside, the set was left empty apart from a series of architectural implements set up by Othello and Iago during the temptation scene, and the bed which took pride of place in the closing scenes.

As the publicity materials and broadsheet attention made abundantly clear, this was Lenny Henry’s production, and his performance stepped up to the mark, giving a straightforward and sympathetic reading of the Moor that heightened the tragedy of his story. However, a performance is nothing without the production to support it, and Broadsides didn’t fail to deliver. Despite some weaknesses in individual performances, Barrie Rutter’s direction and a wonderful pairing in the lead roles made for a no-nonsense and thoroughly effective straight telling of the play.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.


February 07, 2009

Othello (RSC) @ Warwick Arts Centre

The RSC's new touring production of Othello feels surprisingly marginalised. Opening in Coventry, with no Stratford performances and a British press who seem more interested in the upcoming Northern Broadsides production (featuring, as it does, comedian Lenny Henry in the title role), this Othello has a lot to do to avoid slipping under the radar - even an accompanying talk, Is Obama an Othello for our Times?, received more media attention. Yet this is a major production: Director Kathryn Hunter's debut contribution as RSC Artistic Associate, a cast drawn from theatre companies of the moment (Complicite, The RSC Histories, Kneehigh, The Factory) and a leading actress familiar to kids from the Harry Potter movies, and a full-size design and running time that bely the production's touring nature. It's also one of the RSC's more interesting recent productions.

An exhibition accompanying the tour highlights the fact that this production coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of Paul Robeson's epochal performance of the title role in Stratford, and fittingly this was also a production which was about Othello himself. Patrice Naiambana was both the production's greatest strength and its most important weakness. This was a production built around a single performance, clear from the start as Naiambana emerged from a chorus of Catholic chanting to sing an African melody accompanied by the tremendous on-stage band. For this Othello, integration into Venetian society did not entail sacrificing anything of his cultural heritage, and he proudly wore African garb for his wedding, used African exclamations and lyrics and armed himself in private with a whip, his weapon of choice when not in uniform. His 'otherness' was no simple matter of skin colour; this was a man of an entirely different culture, a culture which at the start sat comfortably alongside that of the Venetians. By the end of the play, however, it was clear that the cultural difference was part of what had destroyed him. Othello's own personal sense of honour required little pushing from Iago; the extreme reactions against Desdemona's supposed infidelity were all Othello's own, and his pursuit of revenge could only be satisfied outside of Venetian codes of conduct.

Naiambana's performance was huge and packed full of interest. From the opening moments his presence was utterly commanding, both his own men and Brabantio's giving way to his lightest command. His justification of his love before the Venetian council was similarly compelling; he always owned the stage and the hearts and minds of those on it. This individual authority drove the play inexorably, leaving victory and then destruction in its wake. In many senses, he was the only person in the play who had power; even though his Desdemona was exceptionally strong, he only allowed her to have influence over him while they were in love; once suspicious of her, he humiliated her in public and no-one was able to stand up to him. Ranging from deeply passionate love in early scenes to terrifying range and an extraordinarily violent epileptic fit in the midsections to the cold and almost insane ramblings and squealings of the final act as he grieved for his dead love, this was a tour de force performance and always powerful.

The problem with the performance, however, was that it was sometimes too much. In one sense, it dragged out the play immensely. Naiambana slowed down significant speeches and actions in order to give them weight and power - which effectively meant the entire role was played at half-speed. While this occasioned some lovely moments, it also made the whole play rather long, particularly following Desdemona's death where the staging became effectively reduced to Othello pacing very slowly for long stretches between lines. Naiambana's accent and verbal delivery, too, was luxurious in its pace and pitch, taking the verse to fascinating places and drawing out non-verbal noises of frustration, anger and grief that added depth and variety to the lines, but sometimes verged on the self-indulgent in the self-consciousness of the delivery - it was impressive, but too often felt artificial. However, the main problem was in the balance between Othello and the rest of the production. There simply wasn't enough room for everybody on the stage, and the expansive focus on Othello was out of proportion to the lack of attention elsewhere. This was crucial in the case of Michael Gould's Iago, who came across as essentially pointless. Othello controlled Iago far more than Iago controlled him, and Othello's actions were entirely his own; misguided, sure, but he needed little prompting in order to begin his ritual persecution of Desdemona.

Gould's performance was low-key, to the point of near-invisibility. While Othello's evils were all too obvious, particularly in the final scene (see below), Iago's evils were simple and rather dull. His motivation was, for once, very clear (his anger expressed to Roderigo over being overlooked for promotion was one of his more heartfelt moments) yet, despite his scream of "I hate the Moor", one never felt that he particularly did. He was a troublemaker with a rough London accent, a bit of a joker yet distant from the audience even during soliloquy. Against a smaller or more malleable Othello he might have been effective, but with Naiambana he was quite simply insignificant.

The production embraced an early 20th century setting, the 50s with throwbacks to slightly earlier periods, and Venice and Cyprus themselves were the nominal locations (the early effect of a Roderigo and Brabantio with Mediterranean accents was pleasingly evocative). Staging was elaborate for a touring production (cf the bare stage of the RSC's Romeo) but hugely effective. Two halves of a footbridge moved smoothly around the stage, sometimes joining to create a Venetian arch, at other times being moored with ropes as ships coming into harbour, at other times providing staircases or other pieces of scenery. It was an inventive and imaginative use of scenery that allowed for nice touches, such as Roderigo threatening to throw himself off a bridge or the impressive sight of Othello arriving at Cyprus atop the deck of his ship. Smaller settings were created with half-sails that formed room dividers and screens, and were also used in more symbolic scenes, such as the creation of the storm at the end of Act I. The storm, however, was 'conducted' by Iago, using his arms to bring forward actors who dipped and turned the half-sails to create waves. Iago's role in this was clearly to represent his power, but this felt out of keeping with the character's relative lack of impact. Also, it's a device used near-constantly in The Tempest to show Ariel/Prospero controlling the waves, and frankly it works far better there.

Among the supporting cast, Natalie Tena's Desdemona was a stand-out, and responsible for the two best scenes in the production. This was an exceptionally strong and sexual Desdemona, even (though rather unnecessarily) appearing half-naked in a linking scene with Othello as the two went to bed, and she exerted a great deal of playful control over him. She also, in perhaps the best killing-of-Desdemona I've ever seen, fought back(!), brandishing a smashed bottle at Othello as he chased her with a whip. She hammered at the locked doors, trying to get out, while Othello calmly lit candles and prepared his weapons. This was far from the perfect relationship, and Desdemona far from the saintly Patient Grisel figure she can be written off as. When struck by Othello, and then picked up and dumped on the floor by him in front of her uncle and the Venetian delegation, Desdemona was mortified and adamant in her anger that "I have not deserved this". The only reason she allowed herself to be caught in the bedroom with him is that she hadn't realised the extent of the danger she was in, presumably hoping that all would be forgotten - otherwise, it's hard to imagine why this Desdemona wouldn't have left Othello immediately after he punched her. Tena made Desdemona a believable modern heroine (bringing to a straight production what Julia Jentsch managed in the 2006 adaptation), and her brutal death, thrashed and then throttled by Othello's whip, was hideous for it. She even managed to make the spluttering revival to absolve her lord believable. If Tena had a weakness, it was her speaking voice, which was rather flatter and quieter than a Desdemona this strong deserved.

In another wonderful scene, the Willow song was reinvented to give Desdemona some further back story and an emotional centre. Here, Bianca left early and Desdemona fell asleep on a pile of blankets. Four actors ran out and pulled a huge sheet out from under her, covering the whole stage and creating watery ripples. Then, as if in a dream, Hannes Flaschberger's Brabantio appeared, coming to his daughter and speaking softly to her. The two spoke of Desdemona's mother, of the song she sang, and walked around the rippling sheet together arm-in-arm, evoking a tender and loving relationship that had been lost through her marriage to Othello. The poignancy of the realisation that Brabantio had died came through, and the words of the scene made perfect sense in the voices of father and daughter. An immensely powerful moment that invested us in Desdemona's character right before her murder.

Away from the violence, the 'comic' scenes were also given prominence. Miltos Yerolemou made for a shockingly dangerous and often funny Clown (here, "Soldier Entertainer"). As well as including some of the Clown's usual scenes, which worked well considering he's one of Shakespeare's weaker comic characters, there was also major space for him in the evening revels scene. Iago, setting up a stage and microphone, introduced "Our General and his bride", and to a drumroll, Yerolemou emerged in full Al Jolson-style blackface make-up, holding a grotesquely sexual life-size doll of Desdemona. The audience reaction to the blackface was astonishing: for the most part a deep and uncomfortable silence, broken by loud laughter from some of the schoolchildren. During his routine, the Clown enacted Desdemona giving birth.... to a toy golliwog, in an amazing coincidence given news stories the same week involving public scandals over golliwogs. The effect was extraordinary, uncomfortably funny and powerful in its exposure of the prejudices inherent in that form of 'entertainment'. A black soldier was clearly upset, but afraid to take action as he was alone in his disapproval; yet the Clown stood shamefaced as Othello interrupted the party and hit him over the head with the golliwog. Nonetheless, Yerolemou appeared again in blackface at the start of the second act, this time giving a wonderful rendition of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", Shakespearean references and all. The ongoing stage presence of the doll and golliwog was effective: the golliwog reappeared continually in Othello's personal possessions, possibly as a reference to his own growing obsession to the way he was perceived by others, while the Desdemona-doll found its way into Iago's hands, and during a soliloquy he performed obscene sexual acts with it, smearing boot polish onto its mouth and crotch before running his hands over it.

Marcello Magni was an unashamedly comic Roderigo, discharging weapons accidentally and pathetically bleating to Iago (even more ridiculous after Cassio broke his nose and he was left with a huge plaster). Tamzin Griffin was decent as an older and alcoholic Emilia, leading to an oddly touching moment as Iago took her bottle from her and poured it away privately on the other side of the stage, in a gesture partly embarrassed but partly protective. Other characters, however, had little attention paid to them, particularly a one-note Bianca and the interchangable Venetian lords. Alex Hassell's Cassio was fairly strong but it would have been nice to see a bit more complexity - or a bit more in general. With these characters, as with Iago and Brabantio, there simply wasn't enough to make an impact.

This was largely an interesting production, with much to enjoy. As a showcase for Naiambana's performance, in particular, it was hugely effective, and there's no problem with an Othello giving its central character time and space to develop his story. However, there's much more to the play than Othello himself, and it would have been far better had there been more development of the other aspects of the production. Unbalanced, then, but the strengths went some way towards compensating for the weaknesses.

A version of this review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.


July 07, 2008

Desdemona

And, in further casting news, Natalie Tena will apparently be playing Desdemona to Patrice Naiambana's Othello in the RSC's spring production. Tena's probably best known for playing Tonks in the last Harry Potter film, but she also turned up in Kneehigh's Nights at the Circus. Very interesting casting, certainly not playing to type (as the picture below partly demonstrates), so could be a fun collaboration!

Natalie Tena
Natalie Tena as Fevvers in Kneehigh's Nights at the Circus


December 16, 2007

Othello @ The Donmar Warehouse

Much has been made in the press of Michael Grandage’s new production of Othello for the Donmar, mostly to do with the selling-on price of tickets. Reportedly, tickets have been changing hands for £1200, making this officially the hottest ticket in London. The question is, is it really worth it?

Well, of course it’s not, no play is worth upwards of £1000, however good. Even for the more modest £15-£20 that most of us paid, however, it’s not the all-encompassing success that would justify the hype. Grandage’s production is a solid and interesting telling of the play that does its job, but won’t be entering the history books.

The highlight of this production was undoubtedly Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role. Adopting a flawless Moorish accent, Ejiofor brings tremendous humanity to the role, for the most part avoiding the stock mannerisms and theatrics that sometimes dog the part. In the earliest scenes he was full of life and humour, exuding a likeability that endeared the audience, as well as the Venetian nobility, to his cause. The changes in him throughout the play were subtle, particularly during the crucial temptation scene as he initially paid only scant attention to Iago yet gradually came to a place of extreme violence. Ejiofor additionally rendered Othello an imposing character through an exceptionally strong presence that hinted at the horrors in store for anyone who crossed him. One never doubted his ability to carry out the threats promised should Iago not prove his love a whore.

It was a shame, then, that the other two lead performances were so weak. Ewan McGregor, the production’s big draw, made for an efficient but entirely dull Iago- in fact, rarely have I ever considered Iago such an unimportant character in the play. His coolness certainly made Othello’s trust in him understandable, but even in his soliloquies he seemed only marginally interested in his own scheming. Without personality, McGregor’s performance turned Iago dangerously into a plot device, a means to bring the action forward to its inevitable conclusion. Many reviewers have complained that he’s not evil enough- I would complain that he was just nothing. But at least he was more watchable than Kelly Reilly’s Desdemona. Pathetic and whiny, she may have looked the part but her delivery of the lines was stilted and affected. This combined with a slightly spoiled petulance to create a Desdemona who wasn’t particularly interesting or sympathetic, and like Iago she became a device for Othello’s downfall.

Other aspects of the production were far more rewarding. A fantastic lighting design by Paule Constable made great use of the Donmar space, with a huge sail extending across the ceiling to create an intimate and more brightly lit Cyprus, and once the sail was retracted the relative dimness of the auditorium made for a fitting atmosphere as the play drew towards its conclusion. The opening image too, of light reflecting from the gutter that ran across the stage to create ripples of light on the bare brick wall, was a beautiful one. The sound design was also excellently executed, particularly for the willow song. Desdemona began singing (here she was very good, I should admit) against a background of wind and rain noise with a low note providing an ominous backing. Then, a melody drifted out of nowhere, soft and barely noticeable but just clear enough to support the singing and make the scene very moving, one of the best moments of the production.

The always-reliable Tom Hiddleston was a top-draw Cassio, particularly enjoying himself during the drinking scenes and fawning all over Desdemona. Almost schoolboyish in his pleasure at being asked to read out the proclamation of victory and the first to cheer at good news, his youthful enthusiasm made his final disappointed words to Othello all the more affecting, the play showing his growth into sober manhood as well as Othello’s decline. James Laurenson and Edward Bennett provided good support as Brabantio and Roderigo respectively. Interestingly, having a less likeable Desdemona made Brabantio a far more sympathetic character by comparison, he disowning his daughter for her wilful disobedience. Laurenson’s grave and well-judged performance refused to turn Brabantio into a blustering fool, instead giving us a gentleman roused by an unexpected horror who ultimately resigned himself to it. Roderigo was responsible for many of the production’s comic touches, but Bennett also brought out the character’s positive attributes, particularly as he finally asserted himself against Iago, the character finding a strength which previously he seemed to have lacked.

The final scene was effective, Othello straddling Desdemona’s body as he strangled her with his bare hands on the floor, before gently finishing the job after she already lay still. Ejiofor died with style, a knife to his neck as he fell onto the huge bed. This was the Moor’s play far above anyone else’s, and Ejiofor’s performance will be remembered if there is any justice. A little less hype, and some stronger performances in the other lead roles, would have turned a good production into a great one, but with the Donmar fully sold out for the remainder of the run I don’t think anyone at the theatre will be complaining.


August 05, 2007

Othello @ Shakespeare's Globe

I saw one of my first ever Shakespeare productions at the Globe, The Tempest with Vanessa Redgrave starring as Prospero. The Globe is somewhat smaller than I remembered, but still brings with it that sense of occasion. You don’t just go to the Globe to see the play, but to have the experience of jostling in the yard with all the tourists and school groups, of choosing your spot and admiring the faux-Elizabethan trappings (including ye olde fire exit signs). It’s a beautiful space, and a refreshing change to bypass the usual conventions of the theatre, particularly in regard to noise and movement during the performance.

I wasn’t here for a tour, of course, but to see the Globe’s first production of Othello since its opening. I’ll get a quick rant out of the way here- a big fuss has been made in the media about Eamonn Walker being the first black actor to play Othello at the Globe. Well, of course! It’s the first production of Othello at the Globe, and of course black men didn’t act at the original theatre. You might as well say that Zoe Tapper is the first woman to play Desdemona at the Globe, or Lorraine Burroughs the first female Emilia (here Aemilia). Interviews with Walker have seen him speaking solemnly about the responsibility of being the first actor of colour in the part at the theatre, but I’m with Michael Billington – in an age of colour-blind casting, Billington points out that no British white actor has had a crack at Othello on home turf in over 25 years. I understand the responsibility of David Oyelowo in 2001 being the first black man to play a British king in a history play, but the part of Othello has been the exclusive property of black actors on the British stage (apart from once, in Munchner Kammerspiele’s production in the Complete Works Festival) for longer than I’ve been alive, and it’s hardly news anymore.

To the play. Wilson Milam’s production is a sturdy affair, using the Globe to great advantage, but (and this isn’t necessarily a negative thing) it is entirely traditional. With bare stage, Elizabethan costumes and a completely straightforward interpretation of the text, it was almost an exhibition piece, designed to demonstrate a traditional Shakespeare done well.

The acting was variable. Walker’s Othello was passable, but played up to racial stereotypes too much for my comfort. Zoe Tapper was decent as Desdemona until her final moments- hammering on the door and screaming to be let out, she was carried to the bed and smothered by Othello’s arm horrifically until she finished flapping, yet somehow managed to revive so effectively that she could sit up and hold a loud conversation with Aemilia.

The comedy was provided primarily by Sam Crane’s Rodorigo, a foppish and melodramatic fool who worked the audience well, yet still provided the best sympathy of the afternoon as Iago stabbed him. The Clown’s role was considerably beefed up here, giving him an ongoing spat with the onstage musicians that bookended the play.

Eamonn Walker (Othello) and Tim McInnerny (Iago)

Tim McInnerny’s Iago was in the Bob Hoskins mould, a balding and lecherous villain with a cracked voice and London accent, making him deeply unpleasant rather than calculatedly evil. He was good, if not revelatory, and used the intimate space to good effect, bringing the audience into his schemes as he thought them out.

It was a worthy Othello, if not a revolutionary one. Apart from Othello’s method of killing himself (with a crossbow) I saw nothing new here, and struggled to remain engaged with the action throughout, despite an energetic tavern scene and a genuinely tense finale. It’s the kind of production that teachers would be very happy to bring their class too, but I would have appreciated a little more innovation and some stronger performances from the leads.


March 25, 2007

Before the Bardathon

As we enter the final week of my year-long project, I’m going to be posting a few retrospective entries in addition to the final couple of reviews. First up, I thought for interest I’d mention my PREVIOUS Shakespeare theatre-going.

I haven’t been attending the theatre as long as many people think. Being a Northerner born-and-bred, and not having a lot of money at that, my theatregoing ability was severely restricted until I started university five and a half years ago. Even since then, it’s only been a couple of years since I really discovered Stratford and started going regularly, and my experience of Shakespearean performance in London is also somewhat limited. What I HAVE done, however, is read and study performance history extensively, which has helped me catch up in no small part on the productions I’ve missed. In addition, I’ve watched pretty much every screen production I can get my hands on.

So, before the Complete Works, what have I seen? A good few productions still, though my memory of them fails in several places. For interest, then, here’s what I have seen:

AS YOU LIKE IT (RSC 2005, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Aside from a big tree, a very VERY dull production of ‘As You Like It’ by Dominic Cooke. Some nice moments, but from the Circle the production died a slow and painful death in the second act, which was far longer than the first, and simple wasn’t funny apart from Paul Chahidi’s Touchstone.

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (RSC 2005, dir. Nancy Meckler, at the RST)

Hysterical and highly acclaimed, as well as introducing me to the talents of Forbes Masson and Jonathan Slinger as the Dromios. Fast, funny and exactly how an ‘Errors’ should be.

HAMLET (RSC 2004, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I don’t remember much of this, apart from a few single moments. I do remember, however, Toby Stephens’ Hamlet being pretty damned good!

HENRY V (WUDS 2002 at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

A student production- very low budget, but lively and, particularly in the memorable scenes involving the four soldiers of different nationalities, quite funny too. An all-female cast was the main innovation.

KING JOHN (RSC 2001, dir. Gregory Doran, at the Swan)

Memorable mostly for a spectacular fall from the upper balcony for Arthur, and for the spectacular use of flags and symbols. Generally a very good production, though I enjoyed the 2006 production better.

JULIUS CAESAR (WUDS 2002/3? at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Notable for being the last (I believe) non-musical student production to be staged in the main theatre at Warwick Arts Centre. Solid performances all round, a good use of stage space and innovative use of hand-held cameras for the war scenes made this a very interesting production.

MACBETH (Theatre Babel 2002?, at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Not the greatest ‘Macbeth’, but a fantastic set of dangling swords that descended to ground level and were a constant reminder of the ever-present threat.

MACBETH (RSC 2004, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Bizarrely, all I can remember of this production is the England scene, particularly Clive Wood’s Macduff. I seem to remember enjoying it, however.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC 2005, dir. Gregory Doran, at the RST)

Truly magical, and only bettered by Tim Supple’s Indian ‘Dream’. Spectacular use of scenery, puppets and physical movement made this a true joy to watch, along with Malcolm Storry’s excellent Bottom and yet another hysterical performance by Paul Chahidi as Quince. The ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ will remain with me forever.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC, 2006, at Warwick Arts Centre)

I can’t find anything anywhere about this event, which was performed for one night only at Warwick Arts Centre as part of a tour. Part concert, part performance, it saw a major orchestra performing Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, while RSC actors performed the play between the beautiful score. While necessarily heavily limited by a tiny stage space and the concert format, this was a very fun version of the play, with excellent conflict between the lovers in particular and a superb orchestra playing the most famous Shakespearean music there is. Unfortunately, the evening was coloured by the fact my back collapsed and I had to be taken home by an ambulance afterwards…...

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (WUDS 2004?, dir. Ben Fowler, at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

An interesting ‘Much Ado’, with spectacularly staged overhearing scenes and some interesting things to say about the play. Variable performances, but overall an interesting production.

OTHELLO (Cheek By Jowl 2004, dir. Declan Donnellan, at Riverside Studios London)

One of those divisive productions which people either loved or hated. Seeing it in traverse in London helped, I believe, but still I disliked the slow-talking Iago who seemed to have little control over his actions. However, the cast in general were excellent and the brutal murder of Desdemona, picking her up by the neck, was truly shocking.

SIR THOMAS MORE (RSC 2005, dir. Robert Delamere, at the Swan)

A highly enjoyable production that first introduced me to Nigel Cooke, who was similarly excellent in ‘Pericles’ and ‘A Winter’s Tale’ this season. Violent and exciting, a production which made a very strong case for the increased study in the theatre of this play.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (RSC Touring Company 2000, dir. Lindsay Posner, at Epic Leisure Centre, Ellesmere Port)

A fascinating induction, setting the play in modern day with Sly surfing for porn on the internet and eventually stumbling across an online video of the play. After that, a very funny production that still stays in the mind despite the relatively long time since and my unfamiliarity with it. Still the only RSC touring production I’ve seen.

THE TEMPEST (Shakespeare’s Globe 2000, dir. Lenka Udovicki, at the Globe)

My only experience of the Globe, and an interesting production- with a memorably ethereal Ariel who left the auditorium through the audience, a violent Caliban who kept the crowd laughing with his constant swearing at the overhead planes, and Vanessa Redgrave as an interesting Prospero.

TWELFTH NIGHT (RSC 2005, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I remember much favourable about this production, mostly the comedians- Forbes Masson, Andrew Mackay and Clive Wood winding up Richard Cordery’s Malvolio to perfection, before going on to greater things in the History plays this year. However, I hated this at the time- overall it was sloppy and dull, with awful performances from Viola, Olivia and Sebastian in particular. Lots of interest, lots of style, but very few laughs and an ultimately dull reading.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (RSC 1998, dir. Edward Hall, at the Swan)

And finally, the first Shakespeare I ever saw. This picture is the only bit I really remember- a very funny Crab and Launce, who stay in my mind over nine years later. The Swan has remained one of my favourite theatres over the years too, and it’s nice to think back this far, to the start of my RSC viewing, and still be able to recall little things about a play.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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