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A CurtainUp London Review

"Thus do I make my fool, my purse." — Iago
The cast in Othello (Photo: Helen Murray)
When looking back at the Othellos I have seen in over 20 years of reviewing I stumbled upon this information about the Royal Shakespeare Company which seems like ancient history. In 1999 when they cast Ray Fearon as Othello in a main house production, he was the very first black actor to play the role since Paul Robeson in 1959. The Royal Shakespeare Company hadn't wanted a white actor "to black up" for the part so for four long decades no Othello was played in the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Note: in 1989 Ian McKellen played Iago to Willard White's Othello at the Other Place in Stratford. Willard White is best known as an opera singer.

So under the Artistic Directorships of Sir Peter Hall, Sir Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands, almost unbelievably, there hadn't been a main house production of Othello from our principal and publically subsidised Shakespearean theatre company.

Since 1999/2000 when I reviewed the magnificent Ray Fearon as Othello there have been many notable performances, some of them truly great from David Harewood, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lenny Henry, Eamonn Walker and, just last year, Abraham Popoola under Richard Twyman's direction for English Touring Theatre. Richard Twyman's new lead is Victor Oshin a newly graduated actor from ALRA (Academy Live and Recorded Arts) and how unusual is it to find an actor making his professional stage debut as Othello?

Richard Twyman's production starts with Othello's wedding to a veiled Desdemona (Kitty Archer) in an Islamic ceremony. Taking off the Arabic kaftan, this modern dress Othello dons a large silver cross along with his bullet proof vest, taking on Christianity along with his office working for the Venetian state. The scene on board ship has Arabic prayers to bring the sailors through the storm as men cling to ropes on board the battered vessel.

Iago played quietly by Paul McEwan (also an ALRA graduate), as if passing under the radar, sets up the gullible Rodrigo (Brian Lonsdale) promising all kinds of things Iago won't deliver in return for Rodrigo's wealth. "Thus do I make my fool, my purse," says Iago in an aside to the audience. Importantly in these early scenes Iago tells us why he hates the Moor. Iago has been passed over for promotion as Othello's deputy and instead Cassio (Philip Carreira) has been chosen. Othello is a play about jealousy, and unfounded sexual jealousy but in case you thought that that describes only Othello, it is also about Iago's imagined infidelity of his wife Emilia (Kelly Price) with Othello, "And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets. He's done my office."

Othello and Desdemona's Cypriot dance precedes the rowdy, bawdy barrack room drunkenness when Cassio is given too much alcohol by Iago. We get a new view of Desdemona as flirtatious and besotted with Othello hanging off his neck, putting her arms round his waist and dragging him off to bed at every opportunity. In Kitty Archer's hands Desdemona is more airhead than a figure of sympathy. However Kelly Price's strong Emilia excels in a role which fits well with modern feminism as she talks about the relationship balance of power between men and women.

Georgia Lowe's design has three sides of a square with poles of tube lighting. The on board ship scene and the murderous one in the dark streets of the Cypriot port are especially atmospheric and memorable. The barrack room bawdy saw one elderly patron sadly leave in front of us.

Richard Twyman's production is an excellent opportunity for A level students around the country to see the Shakespearean play they are studying. Modern perspectives on Islam and Christianity can join the debate as to Othello's otherness as well as sexual politics then and now. Was Brabantio right when he condemned his daughter's marriage to Othello? Should Desdemona have agreed to a marriage arranged by her father? Was Othello insecure and unconvinced that Desdemona loved him and if so why? Is race always the most important difference between Othello and Desdemona?

Victor Oshin's Othello is particularly impressive in the final scene as he exits as a man of honour rather than one full of remorse. Watch out for this young actor! Richard Twyman's fine production will continue to provide debate long after curtain down.

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Othello by William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Twyman
Starring: Victor Oshin, Christopher Bianchi, Paul McEwan, Kelly Price, Kitty Archer, Philip Correia

With: Naby Dakhli, James Ellis, James Godden, Hayat Kamille, Brian Lonsdale, John Sandeman
Design: Georgia Lowe
Sound and Composition: Giles Thomas
Movement: Lanre Malaolu
Lighting: Matthew Graham
Fight Director: John Sandeman
Running time: 2 Hours 50 minutes with one interval
A joint production from English Touring Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory
Booking to 24th November 2018
25th to 29th September Harrogate Theatre
2nd to 6th October Cast, Doncaster
9th to 13th October Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
16th to 20th October Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
23rd to 27th October Oldham Coliseum
30th October to 3rd November New Wolsey, Ipswich
6th to 10th November Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry
13th to 17th Northern Stage Newcastle upon Tyne
20th to 24th November The Lighthouse Poole
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 20th September 2018 performance at the Oxford Playhouse, 11-12 Beaumont St, Oxford OX1 2LW (Rail: Oxford)
Index of reviewed shows still running

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