Othello is surely the 'problem play' par excellence. Watching the torture and utter ruin of a 'noble heart' for mere sport is akin to a particularly one-sided bullfight. Dan Hilton's production, however, is notable for the near-absence of malevolence, Iago here barely rising above the mildly dyspeptic.
It is a shame, for it unbalances what is otherwise a strongly-cast and gripping production. That SATTF is around to stage an eighth season is in itself a triumph and a mark of the affection with which it is held in Bristol. Closure, which threatened the company last year after it was plunged into the red, was averted by a fundraising appeal.
Happily, Leo Wringer, who played Aaron in Titus Andronicus - the rock on which SATTF nearly foundered - returns to triumph, effortlessly commanding in the scene in which he explains to the Ventian council how he came to woo, and win, Desdemona.
Wringer, slight and dapper in a suit - the play is unshowily updated to the Edwardian era - is fully at ease too as the Othello who advises, "Put up your bright swords for the dew will rust them". That he has yet to find the pitch of grief, rage and despair demanded by Othello's unravelling must in part be laid at the door of the actor playing his tormentor - step forward Chris Donnelly.
Iago is, of course, ultimately unfathomable. Coleridge famously wrote of his "motiveless malignity". But if an actor does not show why Iago does what he does, he at least has to show the malignity. Donnelly, or Hilton, chooses not to, resulting in an Iago with all the bite of a daytime TV presenter.
Elsewhere, Wringer receives fine support from Byron Mondahl whose Roderigo has more than a little of the late Roy Kinnear about him; Philip Buck as Cassio and Saskia Portway as a particularly sweet and winning Desdemona. Paul Nicholson as Brabantio is, however perhaps a little too frail.
Hilton's experience and intelligence illuminates the production. In the early council chamber scene, he sets Desdemona apart, on a chair in the corner, while the men set about sorting the affairs of state. It's a deft touch.
There is certainly room for improvement then, not least with the fluffed lines which punctuated the performance I saw. But this Othello overall is cause for celebration.
- Pete Wood