I’ve always found
Othello a difficult play to watch.
It’s not just the murderous domestic violence - it’s the
melodramatic nature of elements of the play. Wife murder (x2), pure
evil, war, extreme jealousy, violence, saintly victims, suicide,
black /white, chaos/rationale. The fact a highly respected general
turns on a penny into a jealous monster who kills his wife over a
misplaced handkerchief can make this play a bit lacking in
psychological realism. This often goes two ways: a production comes
across as a bit OTT and daft, or just unbelievable.
Fortunately, Kathryn Hunter’s
production doesn’t suffer either of these potential pitfalls.
Her expert, insightful direction is coupled with an appealing,
charismatic cast. Hunter’s production has been awaited with baited
breath as the first of her collaborations with the RSC as associate
artist; and this show has a lot of the best of Hunter stamped on it:
excellent physicality and striking visual images, as well as an
in-depth understanding of the characters therein.
Patrice Naiambana (Othello) and
Hunter have worked together before with Complicité; and it seems to
be a good combination: Hunter makes the most of Naiambana’s
physicality: from striding around the stage cracking his whip to
dancing tenderly with Desdemona, he provides a charismatic and
colourful Othello. The other characters are clear-cut and engaging
also, with Natalia Tena bringing out all the strength and character
possible with the difficult part of the nauseatingly perfect
Desdemona; Alex Hassell as an entertaining and likeable Cassio and
Tamzin Griffin as a feisty Emilia. Iago, of course, is possibly the
most intriguing character in all of Shakespeare, and Michael Gould
performs well – a more energetic, more enraged Iago than the usual
cold, slippery villain.
The messages come across loud and
clear: the colour issue is driven home with (for example) a
blacked-up entertainer wielding a golliwog. The weighty motif of
psychological disintegration running through is also externalised and
physicalised: with the difficult scene of Othello’s fit aided by
soldiers manoeuvring props to mirror the internal waves in Othello’s
The play comes into its own in the
second half, with the last few scenes being particularly powerful and
moving. The awful build-up to the murder of Desdemona (and subsequent
deaths) is directed with exquisite timing and momentum, and performed
with enormous depth and pathos by Naiambana, Tena and the rest of the
It is a long show – but, to its
credit, I wasn’t aware of how long! The sense of momentum from the
direction and the magnetic cast carry the performance along deftly.
There was an audible gasp from the audience when Othello hits
Desdemona – something I haven’t heard for a while and a sure sign
that an audience is engaged. Stephen Warbeck’s live music also adds
a good deal of colour and atmosphere to this powerful, involving
There isn’t a great deal to criticise
here; although the first half does lack the power and pace of the
second half and could do with a little extra something. Or perhaps
just some whittling down. There are a number of slightly confusing
accents going on, and occasionally static moments, but on the whole
this is a very stirring, adept production.
- Fiona Handscomb (reviewed at the
Warwick Arts Centre)