Lancaster's historic Castle, owned by the Queen in her right as Duke of Lancaster and dating back to Norman times, has been the host to nine Shakespeare plays performed en promenade since 2000 by Demi~Paradise Productions. The venerable and eternally youthful founder and inspiration behind the enterprise is Stephen Tomlin, whose day job, when not appearing on radio or television, is as a Castle Guide. His cast and company are all professionals based in the North-west of England.
This venture has promoted many hundreds of Shakespeare performances over fourteen years, as well as many scores of their annual seasonal evenings of festive words and music, Deck The Hall, in the run-up to Christmas, and their haunting, spooky and candle-lit Ghost Story Readings in intimate venues within the Castle each autumn.
Since the closure of HMP Lancaster, which occupied a large part of the Castle, in 2011, there has been greater public access to the building beyond the Hadrian's Tower build by King John, and the Crown Court and the spectacular Shire Hall of c1800. Othello, then, is the first production to perform in additional areas hitherto unseen.
The visceral and passionate direction of Louie Ingham, Associate Director at The Dukes Lancaster, vibrant music from MD Lee Affen, and simple and effective set and costume design by Rachel Daniels all combine to give this Othello a distinctively contemporary militaristic look, sound and feel. This works well: the conflict between Venice, Cyprus and the Turks nicely complements the psychological warfare that is clearly going on between the main protagonists. Just as in real warfare, there is collateral damage, and the play's minor characters are unrelentingly sucked into the physical and emotional maelstrom.
The cast of ten (with some judicious cuts and doublings) work as a close-knit, even claustrophobic unity. Predictably, Gabriel Paul, with a West Yorkshire accent that gives his Othello even an greater feeling of alienation; Chris Lindon with as fine (and smutty) an Iago as you could wish for; and a demure, elegant Charlotte Dalton as Desdemona, no fragile china doll, all delivered masterful and passionate performances.
The whole cast, save Desdemona, displayed a fine command of military drill, with assistance from Peter Leeson, Joe Cluney and Jane Davies, befitting the battle-zone ethos. A total of nine different sites in the Castle were used, judiciously chosen, ranging from large, multi-level spaces to more intimate spots. This variety, as the audience travelled round to follow the fifteen scenes, highlighted, according to one discerning audience member, the physical journey through the building imitating the emotional progress of the narrative.
I've seen Shakespeare played in some unusual venues in my time, but never in a building that is as historic, massive, distinctive and evocative as Lancaster Castle.
Othello runs till Saturday 22 March.
- Michael Nunn