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Othello (RSC tour)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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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 tortured mind.

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 cast.

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 show.

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)


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