The centrepiece of the 51st Ludlow Festival is Ben Crocker’s revival of Shakespeare’s tautest tragedy, not best suited to the outdoor arena, perhaps, but grippingly arranged against the atmospheric castle walls with long walkways and, in Philip Witcomb’s design, a large golden frame and a chaotic installation of suspended bed frames.
I’m one of the lucky unfortunates who saw Olivier’s Othello, and no one since has come close, not even Scofield or Willard White or Chiwetel Ejiofor. Christopher Obi is an attractive, bemused general, handsome and imposing, but the point about Othello is that he goes crazy with language as well as jealousy; Obi surfs tentatively on the brink but never plunges in or takes off. And his voice is too small.
The engine of the play, as it should be, is Iago, and Michael Mueller is as good as any in recent memory, including Ewan McGregor. He’s dyed-in-the-wool nasty without being hysterical about it, and he snaps out the prose and verse – this is the longest role outside Hamlet – with tremendous verve and skilful variety.
All the plots satellite around him, from the entrapment of Damien Matthews’s hapless, well-spoken Cassio, to the exploitation of Charlie Walker-Wise’s dim-witted Roderigo. There’s depth, too, in his bitterly masochistic marriage to the starchily decent Emilia of Zara Ramm, who in turn makes a real highlight of her bed-time rallying call to Desdemona.
Desdemona herself is another strong performance: Emily Pennant-Rea looks a little like a Henry James heroine at first in her coat and bonnet (the period is loosely “Crimean War,” like Trevor Nunn’s great RSC chamber version) but she blossoms into stern sweetness and genuine pathos.
The “Willow Song” is at the centre of a very good score by Thomas Johnson (played live by members of the cast), and there are some nice, nuggety performances around the edge from Billy Riddoch as Brabantio, William Oxborrow as Ludovico and Sophie Scott as a spitfire Bianca.
So there is much to enjoy and admire. But a few more actors are needed. The doubling up has some risible side-effects; Riddoch, for instance, a vigorous character actor, has to dilute his stage personality as a peppery Brabantio, to appear suddenly sage and dignified as Gratiano. And the deluge of Othello’s demise is more of a summer shower.