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The Theatreguide.London Reviews

Archive: OTHELLO

For the Archive we file reviews of several London productions of Othello together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare or just browse.

RSC 2004 - Donmar 2007 - Frantic Assembly 2008 - Trafalgar 2009 - NT 2013

Othello  RSC at Trafalgar Studios Summer 2004

The redesigned and renamed Whitehall Theatre plays host to this transfer from Stratford of a Royal Shakespeare Company production that should please all but the most jaded of audiences. Director Gregory Doran and his cast give us what  may not be the most exalted or passionate of tragedies, but rather a believable and deeply-moving life-sized study in villainy and destruction.

South African actor Sello Maake ka-Ncube introduces Othello as a happy man, comfortable in his skin and his place in society, with even the slightest hint of an Uncle Tom to his amiability. When Iago fills him with the suspicion that his white wife is untrue to him, his response is not the towering anger of some Othellos, but rather an inward withdrawal into pain.

The actor uses the intimate feel of the redesigned theatre beautifully by letting us see anguish in his eyes and inability to cope in small gestures that die out before they're completed. It is quite possible that the experienced Shakespearean will have seen Othellos more frightening in their rage or madness, but not more moving in the picture of an ordinary, innocent man forced to feel more pain than he can bear.

As Iago, Antony Sher also offers a more life-sized portrait than is the norm. Though he occasionally lapses into the same gruff career soldier shtick that underlay his Macbeth and Titus, for the most part he has found in Iago a man believably driven by little angers.

Though actors and Shakespeare scholars have wrestled for centuries with what one called Iago's 'motiveless malignity,' the sense that he is more filled with hate than any of the reasons he gives seem to justify, Sher makes it chillingly possible that missing out on a promotion and vaguely suspecting that just about anyone onstage might have cuckolded him could drive this little man into a murderous insanity.

The interpretation also makes believable one of the play's central difficulties, the fact that everyone trusts and believes Iago even as he is manipulating them. This short, slightly tubby little man with the funny moustache is a bit of a joke to the others, and it is exactly because they can't take him seriously as a threat that he is so dangerous.

Sher also uses the theatre with particular skill and sensitivity, drawing us into Iago's thought processes, turning  his many soliloquies into thinking-out-loud glimpses into his mad rationality.

The rest of the cast are less impressive. Though other actresses have occasionally been able to find complex shadings to the somewhat thankless role, Lisa Dillon's Desdemona is just a walking victim-in-waiting, while Justin Avoth's Cassio has even fewer colours. Amanda Harris has a few strong moments as Emelia, and Mark Lockyer's Roderigo is essentially a Guy Henry impersonation.

And, while director Doran keeps things moving, the production suffers from the RSC's endemic elephantiasis, stretching well over three hours in an inadequately air-conditioned theatre.

Gerald Berkowitz

Othello  Donmar Theatre Winter 2007-2008

This is a first-rate production, with almost everything about it excellent.

The one thing it lacks, the one thing that keeps it from being really outstanding, is something that you may not even miss - tragic stature. We never really get the sense of a truly great figure being brought low, of larger-than-life passions at work, of something monumental and overpowering working its inevitable way out before us.

What we get is the moving story of an ordinary man being believably destroyed by the gratuitous malice of another, a story that generates pity if not awe. And, if you don't hold the play up to too high an ideal standard, that is a thoroughly satisfying evening's theatre.

It is also the opportunity for a skilled and sensitive director to draw powerful and compelling performances from his entire cast. And - oh yes - it's the opportunity to see two movie stars up close, which is the main reason this limited run sold out completely in the first six hours.

The stars are Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello and Ewan McGregor as Iago, with solid backing from Kelly Reilly's Desdemona, Tom Hiddleston's Cassio, Michelle Fairley's Emilia, Edward Bennett's Roderigo and the whole cast.

The director is Michael Grandage, who has clearly chosen to go for the life-sized human story, and who has guided his cast to create and sustain the emotional reality of that story.

If, as I said, Ejiofor never brings Othello to truly tragic stature, he does show us the man 'who loved not wisely but too well.' The one controlling fact of this Othello's life is his love for Desdemona, and when that is shaken he is driven through the rest of the play, not by rage, but by grief.

Those who look for operatic passions in their Othellos may be disappointed, but adjust your reference to a small man grieving for the one thing that gave his life meaning, and the picture Ejiofor paints is very realistic and very touching. (Just about the only weakness in his performance, ironically, is that he does occasionally reach for tragic, larger-than-life stature, and the only way he has of indicating that is by shouting.)

Ewan McGregor's Iago is equally recognisable - the cold sociopath familiar from so many films and TV crime shows. McGregor doesn't try to explain what one literary critic called Iago's 'motiveless malignity'. It's just a fact - accept that he hates the Moor, for whichever of the several reasons he gives, and he sees no moral issues or complications in his desire to destroy the enemy.

McGregor's Iago is a thinker, always watching, always thinking faster than anyone else, always able to grab an opportunity to advance his villainy.

Shakespearean critics have always seen the ironic foreboding in the first scene, when Desdemona's father warns Othello 'She has deceived her father, and may thee.' But this was the first time it registered with me that Iago heard that line as well, and without any obvious double-take McGregor lets us see the wheels begin to turn in Iago's head.

His performance is full of subtle touches like that, along with excellent and absolutely clear verse speaking

(Indeed, clarity is one of the dominant characteristics of this production, and something to applaud director Michael Grandage for. This is one of those rare Shakespearean productions that some audience members will leave convinced that the actors translated it all into 'real' English.)

Kelly Reilly solves the inherent problem within Desdemona - the fact that the woman strong and independent enough to break with her father and her culture becomes so passive at the end - by suggesting a cushioned princess, well able to dominate within her limited world, but simply out of her depth when things get ugly. She also brings to the play the one essential quality of any Desdemona, ethereal beauty.

Michelle Fairley's Emilia is strong, never more so than in her very courageous scene of standing up to Othello after the murder. Tom Hiddleston's Cassio has an attractive boyish innocence, Edward Bennett's Roderigo is comic without ever lapsing into cartoon, and the rest of the cast, most of them doubling as roles are combined, all serve the play admirably.

If you can get a ticket - the queue for returns starts hours before each performance, but usually a half-dozen manage to get in - or if it does transfer, go.

This may not be an Othello for the ages, but it is as fine an Othello as we could ask for right now.

Gerald Berkowitz

Othello  Frantic Assembly at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre Autumn 2008; January - February 2015

This production by the touring company Frantic Assembly turns the characters into urban hoodies and their girls, sets it in the back room of a Yorkshire pub and has everyone speaking Shakespeare with thick Leeds accents, occasionally interrupting things for dance or choreographed movement to the pounding music of the orchestral/dance crossover group Hybrid.

And if that sounds like a really dreadful idea, the result is considerably better than you might fear.

To be sure, the whole thing does have the inescapable feel of theatre-in-education, and of the sort of misguided 'make it relevant to the kids' dumbing-down that too rarely works. And many of the performances, though by professionals, suggest a particularly good school production. And making all the characters ordinary inevitably makes them melodramatic rather than tragic.

And yet the energy level is high throughout, the editing down to just under two hours is skilful, the movement sequences are beautiful, and - reduced to the level of a teen gang leader manipulated and destroyed by a disgruntled follower - the story does grab and hold you.

Jimmy Akingbola has trouble making Othello-the-ordinary-guy fit the speeches of high passion and tragedy he must speak, and Charles Aitken's Iago keeps getting lost in the crowd.

It is the women - Claire-Louise Cordwell's unusually feisty and independent Desdemona and Leila Crerar's brave Emilia, who stand out and who most successfully translate Shakespeare's characters into modern terms.

Frantic Assembly's artistic directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett share adaptation, direction and choreography credit with the company. Laura Hopkins' set is made of flexible walls that flow in and out with the nicely appropriate quality of a nightmare.

Gerald Berkowitz

Othello  Trafalgar Studios Autumn 2009

The major selling point of this production, seen at the West Yorkshire Playhouse earlier this year, is the appearance of veteran stand-up comic Lenny Henry in the title role. And Henry does give a very fine performance - not 'fine for a stand-up comic', but more than respectable by any standard.

It's a clean, intelligent and passionate portrayal of the Moor, and one that even illuminates the character in fresh ways. I had never before realised that in the key scene between them Iago doesn't lure Othello into jealousy, but maliciously guides him to reject passive jealousy and commit himself to active vengeance - just one of the nice new and wholly convincing readings Henry brings to the role.

Henry has lowered the timbre of his natural voice for the role, and in the opening scenes his elongated vowels and rolling consonants make him sound a bit too much like recordings of Paul Robeson's Othello. But he quickly moves past that to a more natural enunciation, in keeping with director Barrie Rutter and the Northern Broadsides company's commitment to allowing actors to use their natural accents, rather than RSC English.

Henry is at his best in the scenes of anger and high passion, weakest when trying to show Othello's softer or more vulnerable sides (The epileptic fit, for example, doesn't work). In all, as good an Othello as you are likely to encounter from more experienced Shakespearean actors, and better than most.

Conrad Nelson, looking and sounding every inch a veteran NCO, resists the temptation awaiting all Iagos to twirl his metaphorical moustachios in open villainy and offers a more laid-back schemer, happy to plant a seed and then wait to watch it grow.

It is a generous performance, choosing not to steal scenes as more flamboyant Iagos can, but one that rings true moment after moment, as when he feigns being perplexed by his suspicions about Cassio, forcing Othello to supply the answers and thus convince himself.

Jessica Harris looks too mature and sounds too young as Desdemona, a bit too American teenager to be taken seriously, and Richard Standing is as invisible as most Cassios are. The pleasures of this production lie almost entirely in the two central roles, and they are substantial and satisfying.

Gerald Berkowitz

Othello  Olivier Theatre Spring - Summer 2013

Nicholas Hytner's new production is Shakespearean tragedy as very very good TV drama. 

It never achieves – and may not even be trying for – the stature and terror of high tragedy, but as the human-sized story of real and sympathetic people in emotional distress it is engrossing and involving, evoking Aristotle's pity if not fear. 

It is also strikingly crisp, clear and well-spoken, with a modern setting that (for once) doesn't clash with the rhetoric of the play, and is hampered only by a nearly-three-and-a-half-hour running time that inevitably has its passages of low energy and heavy going. 

Adrian Lester is a much younger Othello than we're accustomed to, strikingly young even for a general. Introduced in civilian clothes, he looks more like a prosperous City trader, and his one-of-the-boys ease with the Venetian Senate belies his claim to be an unsophisticated soldier. 

The speed with which he is convinced of his new wife's infidelity and the rage of his response must be explained by something simpler and perhaps even banal than age or race, the proud young stud's outrage at having his macho image besmirched.

Less than tragic, this is believable, and placing the play in the setting of a modern hot-weather war zone (a stark set of a build-fast-and leave-behind temporary military base by Vicki Mortimer) legitimately borrows the sympathy we feel for real soldiers. 

Lester's Othello is never more than a man of limited sphere wrestling with emotions he doesn't have the tools to cope with, but as such he inspires and holds our concern. 

Rory Kinnear wisely avoids the temptations to moustachio-twirling melodramatic villainy that lurk in Iago, giving us a clear and convincing portrait of a resentful non-com plotting small revenges that prove larger and more successful than he might first have imagined. 

Kinnear lets us see Iago making it up as he goes along, gaining in confidence and ambition with each success and honestly surprised and delighted by some of his triumphs, less the all-controlling architect of the tragedy than one as caught up in its momentum as the others. 

Olivia Vinall rescues Desdemona from her clich้d image of born victim by playing her as a spunky tomboy, never seen in a dress and doing her best to fit into the predominantly male military world. 

The modern setting has difficulty fitting in Lyndsey Marshal's Emilia – is she a soldier or just an army wife who enjoys wearing fatigues? - but Marshal invests her two big scenes – the sad joking with Desdemona about adultery and the brave standing up to Othello and Iago – with an attractive reality. 

Jonathan Bailey is an amiable if largely invisible Cassio and Tom Robertson's Roderigo more sympathetic and less clownish than usual. 

Were it not for the excessively long running time, which I would not impose on anyone, I could recommend this as someone's first Othello. While the true height and emotional depth of tragedy is never approached, you are unlikely to encounter a more accessible and – within its chosen limits – successful production.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Reviews of Othello 2004-2013 
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