The Royal Shakespeare Company arrives back in London with Gregory Doran’s production of Othello, originally performed at Stratford’s Swan Theatre, inaugurates Trafalgar Studios, newly created from the former Whitehall Theatre.

Here, Stephen Brimson Lewis has transformed the stage into a secure compound as the Venetian troops occupy the island. The indigenous population hover outside and the sound of a muezzin is heard in the distance. The wire fence serves to remind us of how soldiers remain cut off from the rest of the world, living a life where brutality and violence plays a major part.

Ever since Ian McKellen’s acclaimed performance in the 1980s, we’ve been accustomed to Iago as embittered NCO. What Antony Sher has added several layers of hate. In addition to hatred of Othello, of course, this Iago doesn’t hold back on racist loathing. He mocks Othello’s African accent and uses simian movements to impersonate him.

And it’s not just the deep-seated racism that appals either. There’s also the accompanying misogyny, especially manifested in Iago’s marriage where hints of domestic violence are never far below the surface (perhaps explaining how easily Emilia will fetch the incriminating handkerchief for him). At the end, Sher’s Iago stabs Emilia in the crotch as if venting his rage on her femininity. For this is an Iago only at home on the parade ground or with the troops.

In contrast to Sher, Sello Maake ka Ncube’s Othello disappoints somewhat. While his nobleness of bearing makes one appreciate that he is, as he says, of royal blood, Maake ka Ncube’s speaking is just too measured and too sonorous. He comes alive only in his rage when, swearing vengeance, he leaps into Zulu dance with a dangerous fire lighting in his eyes.

Sher’s performance is matched elsewhere by a wonderful Emilia from Amanda Harris. Here’s a woman at the end of her tether, both with army life and her husband. She makes plain her dislike of men and soldiers in particular, snorting as Desdemona exclaims, “men are not Gods” and acts as the perfect foil to Lisa Dillon’s vulnerable and delicate Desdemona. It’s tempting to see in Desdemona a glimpse of the young Emilia, before she learned the reality of life as an army wife.

A brief word about the venue: the Whitehall has been converted into a wonderfully intimate theatre, with steeply banked seats ensuring a good view for everyone. It could do with a bit of air-conditioning, though; I thought I was actually in Cyprus – there was furious fanning throughout the evening. Still, this Othello is a wonderful production to launch with. Let’s hope it’s a harbinger of more good things to come.

- Maxwell Cooter

NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from February 2004 and this production’s original run at Stratford’s Swan Theatre.

Most actors make the mistake of playing Iago as a pantomime villain, Auden wrote, when he has to seem honest. There’s certainly little of the whiff of sulphur about Antony Sher's brilliant realisation. Heavily moustachioed, ramrod straight, Sher is every inch the sergeant-major.

Sher brings a forensic intelligence to every line and lays bear an Iago, motivated by pettiness, one opportunistic rather than deeply cunning and, ultimately, triumphant through chance, rather than diabolical machination. He also takes the opportunity to have a lot of fun with the role - the performance I saw was noticeable for the number of laughs he managed to wring from a very appreciative audience. A case of the Moor, the merrier?

The fact that Iago is mentioned here before Othello is though perhaps, indicative of an imbalance of this production, admirable though it is. Sello Maake ka-Ncube is a richly-spoken, authoritative and initially impressive Othello. There is real music in his voice. There is also some incoherence.

But ka-Ncube never moves us to pity for his plight, and the play never really soars as it can do, and should. On paper, Othello is no match for Iago. Unfortunately, that’s so in this production also. Ka-Ncube is simply outclassed by, it has to be said, one of the finest Shakespearean actors of our age.

He and Sher are strongly supported by a well-drilled cast. Amanda Harris is admirable as a pinched, cynical Emilia. When Othello and Lisa Dillon’s Desdemona embrace, Harris looks at Sher with pained embarrassment. Dillon is a suitably fragile and innocent Desdemona, while Mark Lockyer as the gull Roderigo, perhaps overdoes the clodpole – there’s more than a touch of John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory's Girl) and Dad's Army Pike in his performance.

Gregory Doran has proved himself a director of genius of Shakespeare's comedies. His acclaimed productions of The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing were intellectually rigorous, highly organised and finely detailed, as Othello is here.

He’s assisted by terrific stage designs by Stephen Brimson Lewis and lighting by Tim Mitchell. The play opens in blackness and storm, modulates through warm golden light, through amethyst to night and high winds again as the tragedy reaches its inevitable conclusion.

- Pete Wood