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Theatre Review (Birmingham, UK): Othello

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One could argue there is no greater compliment to be paid to the production of a play than for it to revise your view of the work for the better; for it to both reinvent the play and deliver an epiphany of understanding is both rare and precious. Othello, Shakespeare’s tragic tale of deception and jealousy, had for me (up to this performance) been a play with much to admire, but also much that was troubling.

However adept Iago was, Othello’s gullibility never quite convinced, as directors have never seemed able to present us with any alternative Othello to the man-god stereotype, or to go beyond chiseled cheekbones and toned physique. They never seemed aware of the extent of the suspension of disbelief needed to accept that this invincible warrior, leader of men, defender of kingdoms, impregnable in battle, could so swiftly be felled by the green-eyed monster that Iago magically manifests from Othello’s emotional insecurity. How could this Nietzschean ‘ubermensch’ become so fatally entrapped by the kryptonite of Iago’s web of deceit, however deftly and deadly the spinner’s hand? It has now become apparent my problem lay not with the original play, but with the play’s history of stereotypical productions that always seem afraid to deviate from the established characterisation.

All that is now banished, thanks to Cyril Niri’s subtly nuanced, revelatory performance as the Moor in the recent production at The Old Rep. From his opening lines he embodies Othello with a capricious fragility. The hairline cracks that slowly evolve into mental fissures on the Moor’s battle-scarred psyche are both subtle and sublime. He convinces us with quicksilver mood swings, thus: at one moment we see him grinning like a lottery winner on helium, then a split second later we have a rapacious mercenary, all too keen to do his master’s bidding, knowing that his place in and value to Venice is only as a warrior and that those masters are concerned only with defeating the Turk, not for his wedding night, or his deteriorating mental state.

Neal Foster is perfect as Iago, the malevolent sociopath who joyously boasts to the audience while the delicious poison of his lies insidiously infects Othello. He is a convincing, charismatic chameleon, conspiring with the hapless Rodrigo, befriending the naive Michael Cassio, charming the virginal Desdemona, and, not least, convincing Othello of his (Iago’s) undying loyalty as a brother in arms who would lay down his life for him. Iago must be a role that every actor relishes, for the chance to galvanise such a monstrous rhetorical puppeteer of the psyche.

It is in Act 3, Scene 3, where Foster excels. This is the epicentre of the play, known as “the temptation.” It concerns the forbidden knowledge that Iago convinces the Moor he possesses, hence driving him mad with curiosity, then doubt. As the scene starts, both men work at desks, gossiping like two office temps, the Moor trying to get on with some paperwork but distracted by Iago’s abstract asides till he pays full attention and ends up convulsed on the floor, contorted by epilepsy. Here Iago effects a huge change in the Moor’s heart with a dazzling display of verbal dexterity. Using rhetoric, timing, puzzlement, curiosity, anxiety, fear, frustration, anger, and self-righteousness to play Othello like a musical instrument. Our hearts are filled with pity as we endure the Moor’s embrace of his executioner.

The rest of the company acquit themselves well. Paul Westwood is perfect as Rodrigo, the besotted buffoon steeped in Iago’s sop. David Blair plays a well-judged Michael Cassio, too full of his self-importance to see that he is succumbing to manipulation; like the Moor, his machismo (along with alcohol) is part of his undoing. Mark Lingwood is particularly impressive as the Duke of Venice. Rebecca Santos gives us a perfectly judged Desdemona, innocence personified, poignantly quiescent as her doomed fate unfolds. This, though, is all but a two hander. In reality it matters not how stern Desdemona’s father is, how gullible Rodrigo is, how blissfully unaware Michael Cassio is, for they are all just pawns in Iago’s game – Iago, the master of torment, a dark knight of the soul who viciously tilts at the Moor’s flawed mental armoury with deadly surgical precision and murderous intent, till The Moor descends into his final wretched mental maelstrom.

So hats off to John Harrison, whose direction is a master class in economy and dynamics. By realising that the words do the work, he gives the cast the space to enrapture us with a stellar performance. His set is minimal and unfussy. The military uniforms have a generic pre-First World War style that works well; the MC Hammer style trousers, with their unflattering bulbous thigh-lines, are one example of the small attention to detail that raise this Moor above the impregnable warrior of cliché to a shell-shocked and terminally damaged mercenary. It is a wonderful production that proves less is indeed more… till chaos is come again.

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  • http://www.runningbowline.com Chris Bancells

    “The Moor’s battle-scarred psyche” is a wonderful turn of phrase which really gets at the heart of this play. Iago is the blackened centered of the action, no doubt, but without Othello’s susceptibility to believe his ancient, nothing would happen. There are several of Othello’s lines, especially in Acts 1 and 2, which could be read as either confident or full of self-doubt. Having seen a handful of productions of the play, I agree that most take the character too far down the great hero path. It must have been refreshing to see a more vulnerable, and thus believable, Othello. One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare is that his work offers up such a variety of interpretation. Of course, the tricky thing with Shakespeare if finding the right one for each character and play.