The Trafalgar Studios provides two new performance spaces, Studio One & Studio Two carved out of the former Whitehall Theatre, a theatre that was underused and earned itself the designation- ‘The White Elephant’. Having only 383 seats, Studio One suggests a small intimate space where all patrons are guaranteed a seat close to the stage; sadly this is not the case. The seating is in the form of an amphitheatre, and in order to sit 383 patrons the seats are steeply raked - even from my seat in Row H, I was seated well above the level of the actors’ heads.
The Royal Shakspeare Company's production of Othello casts two South African actors in the roles of Othello (Sello Maake ka-Ncube) and Iago (Antony Sher), and places the action in a colonial setting - leaving no doubt that this production does not intend to downplay the question of race, especially when Othello performs a tribal dance before collapsing in an epileptic fit, a dance which Iago mocks with monkey imitations.
Antony Sher’s grubby Iago reeks of devilment as he delights in planning Othello’s downfall and he finds as much perverse pleasure in his acts of duplicity as he does in planning his cruel revenge - there is a sickening thrill in his voice each time he describes himself as ”Honest Iago”. Feigning moral outrage, friendly interest and courteousness, he audaciously manipulates others to execute his fiendish plans. He appears to find perverse sexual gratification out of encouraging Othello to strangle Desdemona, as if he was anticipating a snuff movie! When Iago massages the shoulders of his wife Emilia, his hands instinctively grip her by the neck, as if fighting the urge to strangle her.
Sello Maake ka-Ncube’s Othello is as refined as Antony Sher’s Iago is crude and it is the dishonour he feels at Desdemona’s supposed infidelity that wounds him as much as any jealousy. The indignity he feels drives him back to his tribal roots where any act is justifiable to remove the stain of dishonour. It is only in the final scene where Othello murders Desdemona that director, Gregory Doran dresses him in African garments, as if to emphasise this point.
There are fine performances by Mark Lockyer and Justin Avoth as Roderigo and Cassio respectively, and from Lisa Dillon who creates a luscious Desdemona. However, it is Amanda Harris who stands out as Emilia, who in the last act single-handedly rescues the play from falling into melodrama and firmly anchors it as one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "This Othello is more black Jacobean farce than tragedy." BRIAN LOGAN for THE GUARDIAN says, "Compelling." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "the production strikes me as tougher, stronger, better than when I first saw it [in Stratford]".