September 25, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

Othello (Sheffield Theatres) @ The Crucible

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I’m not usually an advocate of celebrity casting. I didn’t see any of the star-name Shakespeares of the summer: Kevin Spacey in Richard III, Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest, or David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado about Nothing. However, I’m too big a fan of The Wire to have risked missing Daniel Evans’s new production of Othello in Sheffield, conveniently just up the road from my new home in Nottingham. Reuniting Clarke Peters and Dominic West, this was the thinking person’s celebrity show.

Othello publicity art

The Crucible is an exciting space, here featuring a large bare thrust with a stone background, dominated by a huge set of doors. The acoustics of the space were dismal, however, with several actors struggling to be heard. Little practical problems such as this blighted the production throughout: fluffed lines, awkward pauses and a horrible moment when Peters found himself unable to draw his sword from the bed, causing him to toss the dead Desdemona’s head about rather roughly as he struggled to liberate it.

These unintentional difficulties, however, were reflected in other uneven moments that were deliberate. Lucy Carter’s lighting design was frequently effective (the gloom of the opening scene; the gradual increase of exposure towards a balmy heat in the play’s second half) but often inexplicable. Why, after establishing a beautiful darkness for the opening scene, were the lights raised so much for the second scene which also takes place in the dead of night? Why switch from relatively natural lighting states representing atmosphere to the abstract use of lighting to create a confined stage space for the willow scene? Why introduce a lighthouse-style moving spot for one random scene change? The set was more consistent, the mostly bare stage allowing for the appearance of a large bed in the final scene to shift the dynamic dramatically.

Despite these problems, Evans offered a traditional and decent production of Othello that particularly benefitted from the evenness of Peters and West. Both held the stage with consummate ease, and just as generously yielded it when not needed. West was particularly skilful at blending unobtrusively into the background in the earlier scenes, gradually coming more to the forefront. His interpretation, with a thick Sheffield accent, echoed Ian McKellen’s in Trevor Nunn’s famous RSC production in treating Iago as a bluff Northern soldier, whose plain speech and manners meant that others repeatedly underestimated him. His crudity following the tempest was pointedly disliked by the other characters, and his casual behaviour towards his peers drew occasional scorn from Cassio. It was an effective approach to Iago that made especial use of subtle expressions – his “I like not that” and “indeed” were entirely natural, yet the note of suspicion contrasted so well with his usual bluffness that Othello couldn’t help but pick up on it.

Peters was a dignified, slow-moving Othello, who took his time to stroll around the stage and react. He spoke carefully, in a deep voice, and allowed himself plenty of time to think before replying to Iago. As the rot set in, the cracks began to show. Peters offered the most believable epileptic fit I’ve ever seen onstage, allowing his words to gradually speed up and break down, his body becoming locked into his stutters and finally collapsing. His careful dignity also made his subsequent outbursts more pointed, and the moment where he slapped Desdemona was especially difficult to watch.

Other performances were less strong. The young Lily James was an affecting Desdemona, who maintained a self-possession even during her abuse by Othello that felt surprisingly modern; but Alexandra Gilbreath’s Emilia was quite tiresome. Played as a Mistress Quickly/Nancy-from-Oliver! Cockney maid, her performance was based around mugging, saucy innuendo and hands-on-hips indignation. As the second half went on, she became much better, her jaunty persona giving way to a more interesting fierce loyalty to the wronged Desdemona that allowed more of the character’s depth to be seen. Colin George as Brabantio, meanwhile, seemed barely to notice the words he was reciting during the first two scenes, where expression and sense were both entirely absent.

As ever, the drinking scene was a particular highlight, with Montano (Luciano Dodero) unusually prominent as Iago got the revellers to pour their dregs into a single goblet that Gwilym Lee’s Cassio was forced to down. Lee did excellent work in the role, creating a very human Cassio whose attempts to drunkenly assert his sobriety were realistic rather than merely funny. Brodie Ross complimented Cassio in this scene and others, exaggerating the foppish aspects of the character while rarely making him ridiculous (save for in the very entertaining “incontinence” passage, where he wailed comically). Ian Barritt’s Clown was also surprisingly funny.

A few other moments stood out. James’s singing during the willow scene was not only beautiful, but poignant and vulnerable, and it was from this point that Gilbreath reined in her excesses as Emilia. The storm was fully created with thunder and lightning effects, over which the actors attempted to scream; and the scene in which Cassio and Iago discuss Bianca was simple but absolutely clear. Iago stood between Othello and Cassio, angling his body to explicitly control what Othello could and could not hear.

This was Iago and Othello’s show, however. I would have liked to have seen more go on beneath Iago’s façade, particularly as West’s pauses and careful swallows after mentions of his wife’s infidelity suggested a very specific motive for his anger that was realised brutally as he pinned Emilia to the floor and kissed her in order to get the handkerchief, before kicking her off the stage. His relationship with Peters was riveting, however, and their long shared scene was the most obviously rehearsed aspect of the whole production. The two batted single words and raised voices back and forth, orchestrating the temptation in a captivating and entirely believable manner, giving a sense of Iago’s truly insidious nature.

This has the potential to be a much better production once the company have relaxed and the kinks are ironed out. While it suffered from a few very weak performances and an overly traditional approach, this remained a faithful and often fascinating Othello that understood the importance of getting its two lead characters front and centre on a bare stage and letting them work. While it was a relief to see these priorities, however, the central relationship needs to be better supported by the rest of the production in order for it to be great.

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