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Othello RSC Sher
by Brian Clover

I have not deserved this.
--- Desdemona
Sello Maake ka Ncube as Othello and Antony Sher as Iago
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
The Trafalgar Studios hosts the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of Othello, directed by Gregory Doran with Sello Maake ka-Ncube as the Moor and Antony Sher as Iago. By one of those delicious theatrical ironies, this searing tale of a doomed marriage is staged in what used to be the Whitehall Theatre, the long-time home of the coy British farce of marital insecurity such as Run For Your Wife. (This is the genre mocked with affection by Michael Frayn in Noises Off). But when this jealous husband runs for his wife the audience holds its breath in horror.

In some ways Othello, directed by Gregory Doran, is similar to Simon McBurney's Measure for Measure at the Olivier. Both are exciting, with brilliant performances and stunning spectacle. Both allude to Western imperialism and militarism. Both productions are compelling. Both have their flaws.

This Othello acknowledges a political dimension but concentrates on the immediate human drama. When Desdemona's father learns that his daughter has eloped he demands justice from the Duke of Venice. The Duke readily promises, but quietly reneges when he realises Othello is the culprit - the state needs Othello to fight the Turks. At the end the question lingers as to whether Othello, after all his crimes, would even now retain his immunity if the enemy were still a threat. The Venetians and Turks have impoverished Cyprus and turned it into an army camp they need to fight their wars. Doran hints at a vaguely contemporary military environment with a brilliantly simple but adaptable set by Stephen Brimson Lewis - a barbed wire fence and a corrugated iron roof to catch the "real" rain in the storm scene - but the references are never distracting, (although the eclectic range of uniforms and weapons on display does look incongruous.)

The staging and ensemble work are as excellent as you would expect from the RSC. Swords, knives and drunken soldiers whistle past the noses of those fortunate enough to sit at the stage level of the Studio, which resembles one half of a vertically dissected vertiginous cone. There is a dazzling drinking scene and there are ferocious fights (courtesy of Terry King) which display an immaculate but lightly-worn virtuosity. You are in safe hands with this lot, but there is more.

Many will go just to see Sello Maake Ka-Ncube and Antony Sher, the dramatic equivalent of an Ali-Frazier title fight. Sher dominates the earlier scenes as the poisonous, though plausible, Iago: bristling, bluff, matey, but so military that his forehead is permanently creased by his stiff peaked cap. He almost, though perhaps not quite, reconciles us to Iago's irritating villain's habit of telling us what he is going to do before doing it, doing it, then telling us what it is he has just done. Some cutting would be welcome here since Sher could do all this stuff with half an eyebrow. For one chilling moment he manages to suggest a surge of guilty horror and self-awareness on Iago's part and one wishes he could have explored this side of the character more. Despite all the energy and intelligence Sher deploys to bring him to life, Iago remains an opaque malevolent force from start to finish. Sher hints that we could think of Iago as someone astonished at his own power and risking more and more as he succeeds in his increasingly wicked schemes, rather than as the one-dimensional Mystery play Devil who is merely malice personified. But he doesn't follow it through and lets this tantalising idea go by the board. It's a great performance, but you suspect it could be a supreme one.

The other South African star, Sello Maake Ka-Ncube, dominates the second half. He has massive presence as Othello. But then, if you can't do massive presence in this role you are wasting everyone's time. Sello can play the self-confident military leader, so victorious that even the Duke dare not interrupt his long-winded speeches. He can also play the distracted husband who regresses to primal savagery under the lash of Iago's tongue. But it is when he takes off into the stratosphere of demented calmness that he terrifies. It is said that a team of travelling players once performed Othello in the old West and did it so well that a cowboy in the audience pulled out his gun and shot Iago for being such a rat. In the same way here at the Studio you expect one of the front row spectators to jump up and tell Othello what is really going on. Or stop him from abusing Desdemona. Or at least offer him a towel to wipe away all that sweat. For this is a performance of total physical conviction, with an immediacy that reminds you, if you need reminding, what theatre is about.

One could have reservations. Is his lurch from authority to insecurity too abrupt? Are his wild eyes, his ritual gesturings, his rhythmic foot-stompings just a shade too close to clichés of the "savage"? Othello is an outsider in Venice, and he is superstitious, as many are, but is this brilliant tactician and judge of men quite so likely to forget everything he has learnt so painfully in the heat of battle? Perhaps he can. Like Lear and Mark Antony, Othello is a great soldier, man of action, leader, but a man quite utterly lost when he needs to understand the world that women inhabit.

Whatever one's doubts about their interpretations, these actors give stellar performances. In the second part of the play the tension rises to unbearable levels, (though the scene between Emilia and the doomed Desdemona sadly loses impetus) and the climax, with the curtain of a deathbed falling from the sky like a promise of paradise, is unforgettable. But then something unexpected happens: Amanda Harris's Emilia comes on and upstages everyone. When she first appears she is striking as the army wife: stylish, worldly and weary, a cigarette her only friend. But now she dominates the stage. Perhaps Shakespeare meant this to happen - the wicked plots of men must be exposed by an ordinary decent woman. Or perhaps Harris is just running away with the part. Either way she shocks us into attention just when we thought the play was winding down. And she can do this against such competition? The woman is a star. And she is not the only one. In the lesser parts Ken Bones' moving Brabantio, Mark Lockyer's tragi-comic Roderigo, Justin Avoth's bland but believable Cassio, are all memorable. An absorbing, if hot, night at the theatre.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran

Starring: Antony Sher, Sello Maake ka Ncube
With: Charles Abomeli, Barry Aird, Justin Avoth, Ken Bones, Peter Bramhill, Vincent Brimble, Edward Clayton, Jonathan Duff, Mark Lockyer, Paul O'Mahony, Clifford Rose, Nathalie Armin, Amanda Harris and Viss Elliot, Lisa Dillon
Designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Music: Adrian Lee
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell
Sound: Martin Slavin
Movement: Michael Ashcroft
Running time: Three hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 662
Booking to 17th July 2004.
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 4th June 2004 performance at the Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London SW1 (Tube: Charing Cross/Embankment)
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