February 7, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Othello (RSC) @ Warwick Arts Centre

The RSC’s new touring production of Othello feels surprisingly marginalised. Opening in Coventry, with no Stratford performances and a British press who seem more interested in the upcoming Northern Broadsides production (featuring, as it does, comedian Lenny Henry in the title role), this Othello has a lot to do to avoid slipping under the radar – even an accompanying talk, Is Obama an Othello for our Times?, received more media attention. Yet this is a major production: Director Kathryn Hunter’s debut contribution as RSC Artistic Associate, a cast drawn from theatre companies of the moment (Complicite, The RSC Histories, Kneehigh, The Factory) and a leading actress familiar to kids from the Harry Potter movies, and a full-size design and running time that bely the production’s touring nature. It’s also one of the RSC’s more interesting recent productions.

An exhibition accompanying the tour highlights the fact that this production coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of Paul Robeson’s epochal performance of the title role in Stratford, and fittingly this was also a production which was about Othello himself. Patrice Naiambana was both the production’s greatest strength and its most important weakness. This was a production built around a single performance, clear from the start as Naiambana emerged from a chorus of Catholic chanting to sing an African melody accompanied by the tremendous on-stage band. For this Othello, integration into Venetian society did not entail sacrificing anything of his cultural heritage, and he proudly wore African garb for his wedding, used African exclamations and lyrics and armed himself in private with a whip, his weapon of choice when not in uniform. His ‘otherness’ was no simple matter of skin colour; this was a man of an entirely different culture, a culture which at the start sat comfortably alongside that of the Venetians. By the end of the play, however, it was clear that the cultural difference was part of what had destroyed him. Othello’s own personal sense of honour required little pushing from Iago; the extreme reactions against Desdemona’s supposed infidelity were all Othello’s own, and his pursuit of revenge could only be satisfied outside of Venetian codes of conduct.

Naiambana’s performance was huge and packed full of interest. From the opening moments his presence was utterly commanding, both his own men and Brabantio’s giving way to his lightest command. His justification of his love before the Venetian council was similarly compelling; he always owned the stage and the hearts and minds of those on it. This individual authority drove the play inexorably, leaving victory and then destruction in its wake. In many senses, he was the only person in the play who had power; even though his Desdemona was exceptionally strong, he only allowed her to have influence over him while they were in love; once suspicious of her, he humiliated her in public and no-one was able to stand up to him. Ranging from deeply passionate love in early scenes to terrifying range and an extraordinarily violent epileptic fit in the midsections to the cold and almost insane ramblings and squealings of the final act as he grieved for his dead love, this was a tour de force performance and always powerful.

The problem with the performance, however, was that it was sometimes too much. In one sense, it dragged out the play immensely. Naiambana slowed down significant speeches and actions in order to give them weight and power – which effectively meant the entire role was played at half-speed. While this occasioned some lovely moments, it also made the whole play rather long, particularly following Desdemona’s death where the staging became effectively reduced to Othello pacing very slowly for long stretches between lines. Naiambana’s accent and verbal delivery, too, was luxurious in its pace and pitch, taking the verse to fascinating places and drawing out non-verbal noises of frustration, anger and grief that added depth and variety to the lines, but sometimes verged on the self-indulgent in the self-consciousness of the delivery – it was impressive, but too often felt artificial. However, the main problem was in the balance between Othello and the rest of the production. There simply wasn’t enough room for everybody on the stage, and the expansive focus on Othello was out of proportion to the lack of attention elsewhere. This was crucial in the case of Michael Gould’s Iago, who came across as essentially pointless. Othello controlled Iago far more than Iago controlled him, and Othello’s actions were entirely his own; misguided, sure, but he needed little prompting in order to begin his ritual persecution of Desdemona.

Gould’s performance was low-key, to the point of near-invisibility. While Othello’s evils were all too obvious, particularly in the final scene (see below), Iago’s evils were simple and rather dull. His motivation was, for once, very clear (his anger expressed to Roderigo over being overlooked for promotion was one of his more heartfelt moments) yet, despite his scream of "I hate the Moor", one never felt that he particularly did. He was a troublemaker with a rough London accent, a bit of a joker yet distant from the audience even during soliloquy. Against a smaller or more malleable Othello he might have been effective, but with Naiambana he was quite simply insignificant.

The production embraced an early 20th century setting, the 50s with throwbacks to slightly earlier periods, and Venice and Cyprus themselves were the nominal locations (the early effect of a Roderigo and Brabantio with Mediterranean accents was pleasingly evocative). Staging was elaborate for a touring production (cf the bare stage of the RSC’s Romeo) but hugely effective. Two halves of a footbridge moved smoothly around the stage, sometimes joining to create a Venetian arch, at other times being moored with ropes as ships coming into harbour, at other times providing staircases or other pieces of scenery. It was an inventive and imaginative use of scenery that allowed for nice touches, such as Roderigo threatening to throw himself off a bridge or the impressive sight of Othello arriving at Cyprus atop the deck of his ship. Smaller settings were created with half-sails that formed room dividers and screens, and were also used in more symbolic scenes, such as the creation of the storm at the end of Act I. The storm, however, was ‘conducted’ by Iago, using his arms to bring forward actors who dipped and turned the half-sails to create waves. Iago’s role in this was clearly to represent his power, but this felt out of keeping with the character’s relative lack of impact. Also, it’s a device used near-constantly in The Tempest to show Ariel/Prospero controlling the waves, and frankly it works far better there.

Among the supporting cast, Natalie Tena’s Desdemona was a stand-out, and responsible for the two best scenes in the production. This was an exceptionally strong and sexual Desdemona, even (though rather unnecessarily) appearing half-naked in a linking scene with Othello as the two went to bed, and she exerted a great deal of playful control over him. She also, in perhaps the best killing-of-Desdemona I’ve ever seen, fought back(!), brandishing a smashed bottle at Othello as he chased her with a whip. She hammered at the locked doors, trying to get out, while Othello calmly lit candles and prepared his weapons. This was far from the perfect relationship, and Desdemona far from the saintly Patient Grisel figure she can be written off as. When struck by Othello, and then picked up and dumped on the floor by him in front of her uncle and the Venetian delegation, Desdemona was mortified and adamant in her anger that "I have not deserved this". The only reason she allowed herself to be caught in the bedroom with him is that she hadn’t realised the extent of the danger she was in, presumably hoping that all would be forgotten – otherwise, it’s hard to imagine why this Desdemona wouldn’t have left Othello immediately after he punched her. Tena made Desdemona a believable modern heroine (bringing to a straight production what Julia Jentsch managed in the 2006 adaptation), and her brutal death, thrashed and then throttled by Othello’s whip, was hideous for it. She even managed to make the spluttering revival to absolve her lord believable. If Tena had a weakness, it was her speaking voice, which was rather flatter and quieter than a Desdemona this strong deserved.

In another wonderful scene, the Willow song was reinvented to give Desdemona some further back story and an emotional centre. Here, Bianca left early and Desdemona fell asleep on a pile of blankets. Four actors ran out and pulled a huge sheet out from under her, covering the whole stage and creating watery ripples. Then, as if in a dream, Hannes Flaschberger’s Brabantio appeared, coming to his daughter and speaking softly to her. The two spoke of Desdemona’s mother, of the song she sang, and walked around the rippling sheet together arm-in-arm, evoking a tender and loving relationship that had been lost through her marriage to Othello. The poignancy of the realisation that Brabantio had died came through, and the words of the scene made perfect sense in the voices of father and daughter. An immensely powerful moment that invested us in Desdemona’s character right before her murder.

Away from the violence, the ‘comic’ scenes were also given prominence. Miltos Yerolemou made for a shockingly dangerous and often funny Clown (here, "Soldier Entertainer"). As well as including some of the Clown’s usual scenes, which worked well considering he’s one of Shakespeare’s weaker comic characters, there was also major space for him in the evening revels scene. Iago, setting up a stage and microphone, introduced "Our General and his bride", and to a drumroll, Yerolemou emerged in full Al Jolson-style blackface make-up, holding a grotesquely sexual life-size doll of Desdemona. The audience reaction to the blackface was astonishing: for the most part a deep and uncomfortable silence, broken by loud laughter from some of the schoolchildren. During his routine, the Clown enacted Desdemona giving birth…. to a toy golliwog, in an amazing coincidence given news stories the same week involving public scandals over golliwogs. The effect was extraordinary, uncomfortably funny and powerful in its exposure of the prejudices inherent in that form of ‘entertainment’. A black soldier was clearly upset, but afraid to take action as he was alone in his disapproval; yet the Clown stood shamefaced as Othello interrupted the party and hit him over the head with the golliwog. Nonetheless, Yerolemou appeared again in blackface at the start of the second act, this time giving a wonderful rendition of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", Shakespearean references and all. The ongoing stage presence of the doll and golliwog was effective: the golliwog reappeared continually in Othello’s personal possessions, possibly as a reference to his own growing obsession to the way he was perceived by others, while the Desdemona-doll found its way into Iago’s hands, and during a soliloquy he performed obscene sexual acts with it, smearing boot polish onto its mouth and crotch before running his hands over it.

Marcello Magni was an unashamedly comic Roderigo, discharging weapons accidentally and pathetically bleating to Iago (even more ridiculous after Cassio broke his nose and he was left with a huge plaster). Tamzin Griffin was decent as an older and alcoholic Emilia, leading to an oddly touching moment as Iago took her bottle from her and poured it away privately on the other side of the stage, in a gesture partly embarrassed but partly protective. Other characters, however, had little attention paid to them, particularly a one-note Bianca and the interchangable Venetian lords. Alex Hassell’s Cassio was fairly strong but it would have been nice to see a bit more complexity – or a bit more in general. With these characters, as with Iago and Brabantio, there simply wasn’t enough to make an impact.

This was largely an interesting production, with much to enjoy. As a showcase for Naiambana’s performance, in particular, it was hugely effective, and there’s no problem with an Othello giving its central character time and space to develop his story. However, there’s much more to the play than Othello himself, and it would have been far better had there been more development of the other aspects of the production. Unbalanced, then, but the strengths went some way towards compensating for the weaknesses.

A version of this review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review