Passion, prejudice, power - and an all-consuming jealousy. That's the heady concoction that makes up Shakespeare's classic tale.
Having led the Venetian army to victory over the Turks, Othello (Joseph Paterson) returns to Venice a celebrated hero whose courage and leadership gain him an admirer in a senator's beautiful daughter, Desdemona Emma Darwall-Smith, whom he secretly marries. Meanwhile, not happy being second in command, Othello's lieutenant and trusted friend Iago (Andy Serkis) sets out to wreak his revenge by spinning a web of lies that will ensnare all those around him.
The refreshing thing about Braham Murray's production of this great tragedy is that, here, less is more. Certainly so with Johanna Bryant's simple yet effective set design, boasting no more than a tarpaulin as a prop for numerous scenes. Without the aid of a lavish backdrop, the pressure is on the actors to fill the stage with emotion. And that they do.
The performances are slow-burning and with good reason. By the time the second half is under way, each performer comes into their own. Paterson's Othello is an enigmatic man, but, as jealousy eats away at the great leader, you can't help but feel the depth of his pain thanks to the actor's towering performance. The heights of which are more than matched by the wonderful Andy Serkis. His super-cynical Iago has perhaps never been more likeable! However despicable his acts, Serkis imbues this villain with such aching desperation that he's impossible to hate.
Providing solid support as the innocents, Darwall-Smith and Lorraine Ashbourne's Emilia both convey palpable disbelief at how completely their lives are turned upside down. And a special mention must go to the comedic talents of the young Sam Spruell as fellow pawn, Roderigo; his is a remarkable professional debut.
But then, everything about this production oozes class - from the performances and sure-footed direction to the intricate grandness of the soldiers' uniforms and Robert Bryan's precise lighting, which casts an intense spell of interrogation as each character battles with their conscience underneath the spotlight's constant glare.
In my opinion, this is faultless theatre and a stunning start to the new Royal Exchange season.
- Glenn Meads