The Royal Shakespeare Company makes history tonight (18 February 2004, previews from 12 February), when its 400th anniversary production of Othello opens at Stratford’s Swan Theatre with two South African actors, one black and one white, playing the leads of Othello and Iago for the first time in the UK (See News, 30 Sep 2003).

Sello Maake ka Ncube (Othello) and Antony Sher (Iago) last worked together, also with director Gregory Doran, in a 1995 production of Titus Andronicus at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa. Co-starring as Desdemona is Lisa Dillon, who earlier this month won the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Newcomer for The Master Builder and Iphigenia (See News, 3 Feb 2004).

The Othello cast also features Charles Abomeli, Barry Aird, Justin Avoth, Ken Bones, Peter Bramhill, Vincent Brimble, Edward Clayton, Jonathan Duff, Mark Lockyer, Paul O’Mahony, Clifford Rose, Nathalie Armin, Amanda Harris and Viss Elliott. The production continues, in a straight run, until 3 April 2004, before a five-week tour of Japan.

Back in Stratford, the newly formed RSC Core Ensemble next month launches the Tragedies season, with four more of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies performed in repertoire in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Full casting has now been announced.

In Macbeth, another of this year’s Critics Circle winners Greg Hicks and Whatsonstage.com Award winner Sian Thomas, playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, will be joined by Pal Aron (as Malcolm), Richard Cordery (Duncan), Forbes Masson (the Porter), Clive Wood (Macduff) and Louise Hilyer. The production, directed by associate director Dominic Cooke, opens 18 March 2004 (previews from 6 March).

Matthew Rhys (The Graduate) and Sian Brooke (Absolutely! (perhaps)) both make their RSC debuts playing the young lovers in Peter Gill’s production of Romeo and Juliet, which opens 7 April 2004 (previews from 25 March). They’re joined by Jonathan Forbes (Paris), Trystan Gravelle (Benvolio), David Hargreaves (Capulet), Tam Mutu (Tybalt), John Normington (Friar Lawrence), Sion Tudor Owen (Montague), Gideon Turner (Mercutio) and June Watson (Nurse).

In Bill Alexander’s production of King Lear, starring Corin Redgrave in the title role, the cast also features David Hargreaves (Gloucester), Fever Pitch’s Ruth Gemmell (Regan), Pal Aron (Edgar), Louis Hilyer (Kent), John Normington (Fool), Matthew Rhys (Edmund), Leo Wringer (Albany), Sian Brooke (Cordelia) and Emily Raymond (Goneril). The production on 30 June 2004 (previews from 17 June).

Michael Boyd makes his directorial debut as RSC artistic director with Hamlet, the final production in the Tragedies season, starring Toby Stephens as the prince and Sian Thomas as Gertrude. They’re joined, amongst others, by Meg Fraser (as Ophelia), Richard Cordery (Polonius), Greg Hicks (Ghost/Player King/Gravedigger), John Killoran (Guildenstern), John Mackay (Rosencrantz), Gideon Turner (Laertes) and Clive Wood (Claudius). Hamlet opens 21 July 2004 (previews from 8 July).

The RSC is expected to transfer the Tragedies to London after their seasons in Stratford and Newcastle, although details of the company’s semi-permanent home in the capital, which would host the productions, have not yet been announced.

- by Terri Paddock