Shakespeare’s tragedy of obsessive hate and jealousy is relocated to World War Two in Rupert Goold’s gripping new production. It was a time when black American GIs serving their country abroad found themselves in an equivocal position, exploited on the battlefield by an establishment that still regarded them as second-class citizens, even as they enjoyed more freedom away from segregation at home.
Goold highlights the night-time setting of the Venetian scenes, with locations ranging from the war cabinet room to a smoky Jazz Club where Othello celebrates his elopement. The filmic effect contrasts wonderfully with the brilliant sunshine of Cyprus, where everyone seeks the shade of pillared colonnades, in Laura Hopkins’ evocative and versatile design.
Othello’s situation as valiant black leader tolerated because he is essential to the war effort works well in the twentieth century context and lends a shocking contemporary feel to Iago’s venomous racial abuse.
But however apt the context, the impact of Shakespeare’s story depends on the actors’ power to flesh out the characters and speak the verse. And Gool] has cast his production for maximum impact. Physically, Ron Cephas Jones’ tall elegant Othello and Finbar Lynch’s wiry little terrier of an Iago chillingly echo the polarisation of the two men. And Othello’s terrifying slide from confident authority to paralysing, then murderous jealousy is the more heartbreaking, as we watch his easy grace of movement imploding to hunched misery and anger.
Taut as a coiled spring, Lynch is terrifying in his portrait of implacable hate. Othello may boast more soliloquies than Hamlet, but they are addressed to the audience, who laugh uneasily at becoming Iago’s unwilling confidants. It’s a surprisingly intimate play, despite its big set-piece scenes. Many scenes are between just two characters, as Iago works on his victims one by one. These are beautifully paced and choreographed, again well served by the angles of the set, focusing on the protagonists.
Cephas Jones’ gentle American vowels suit the verse just fine, making it sound natural and contemporary. Lynch’s Irish burr is equally effective and the whole cast speak the verse with ease.
The central performances are well-matched by the whole tight ensemble, especially Kate Fleetwood’s vulnerable, dignified Desdemona and William Buckhurst’s sturdy, well-meaning Cassio. Teresa Banham’s sexy, intelligent Emilia stands out, taking the stage with impressive authority when she realises the enormity of her husband’s villainy.
Goold and his cast transfix with the terror and pity in the tragedy of Othello.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at Northampton’s Theatre Royal)