Last year's excellent RSC production of The Merry Wives Of Windsor billeted a black American pilot amid an ever-so-English 1940s community, so that amid all the Falstaffian jollity there were discreet nods to the racist underside of such social mores. Now Rupert Goold has gone the whole hog by taking the same approach to Othello at his Northampton Theatre Royal. The Moor is an African-American, feted by the Allies, stationed in the Mediterranean at the head of a mostly English force and married to an English rose of a Desdemona; I don't think one need read too much into his ensign Iago's Irishness.
Setting the play in this period both makes a military-historical point (it is only recently that most of the military service of black Americans has been restored to "mainstream" history) and places Othello in a culture where racism can be as much a product of thoughtlessness as of conscious hostility. Of course, Iago is consciously hostile to his commander, even if he can never quite settle on a single reason why. Finbar Lynch's Iago is a cold fish; even when sharing the full extent of his malevolence with us in soliloquy, he tends towards the affectless. This makes him a modern, human-sized villain, but the point about Iago is that he is both plausible and larger than life.
Ron Cephas Jones begins as Othello with similar cool, and maps the change thoroughly through the two central duologues in which Iago expertly stokes the Moor's jealousy. We see him move from impregnable assurance to bluff defensiveness to doubt to barely checked frenzy. Cephas Jones' lankiness of frame accentuates his physical business, be it wiping perspiration from his hands on his trousers or folding himself into a knot of torment. At one point on the press night, though, his passion went too far; exiting with a cry of "Zounds!", he punched Laura Hopkins' versatile colonnaded set so hard that one entire side of the town square juddered crazily, coming to rest almost a foot out of place.
Of course, when a director stages a set curriculum text and speaks in terms of his theatre's "commitment to education", it's hard not to interpret it cynically as a commitment to getting guaranteed block bookings from schools and colleges. The sixth-formers I eavesdropped on in the interval remained ungrabbed, and I see their point; it's a clear, even enlightening but ultimately uncompelling production. Next Tuesday, the Theatre Royal's next-door hall, the Derngate, plays host to baritone Willard White, who played Othello in Trevor Nunn's seminal 1989 RSC production; thoughtful though Cephas Jones' portrayal is, White may not be as consumed with jealousy as the Moor himself.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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