Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 15 November, 2004

Since its foundation in 1981, Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s company Cheek By Jowl has specialised in reinventing classic plays. Othello, arriving in London at the end of a long global tour, is no exception to this.  The production contains a number of ideas, images and moments that startle you into looking at the play afresh.  But there are also a number of things that don’t work, and trademark devices that seem to be there “just because”.

Nonso Anonzie has a terrific, thick-set, bullet-headed physical presence in the title role, so much so that he doesn’t need to be as florid in his speech as Othello is usually portrayed.  As a result, when Othello’s mind is slowly poisoned about bride Desdemona’s imagined infidelity, Anonzie is free to show other moods than standard frenzy.  It’s chilling to see how offhand and matter-of-fact he can sometimes be.

Othello famously falls into a fit at one point, so jealous is he. Anonzie’s general physical assurance enables him to pick up this motif at other moments by reeling drunkenly in his passion.  Jonny Phillips’ villainous Iago, who works on his general’s mind, is less bluff and hearty than usual; indeed, most of the time he’s lugubrious.  He only begins to look cheerful when administering his malicious “medicine”.

As the innocent Desdemona, Caroline Martin is unusually self-assured most of the time. She only strikes a false note when asked repeatedly to stagger backwards in shock at Othello’s rage.  Other misjudgements include playing supposedly whispered night scenes across the width of a thickly peopled stage, and actors striking tableaux during others’ exposition speeches.  The air of ritual simply doesn’t work.

Where it almost all comes together is in the final act. Here the sense of ceremony, the chilling switches of mood and several unexpected notes (even Othello’s famous dying lines are cut) combine to marvellous, riveting effect.  Overall there’s enough innovation and challenge in the three and a quarter hours to keep you constantly engaged.  And Cheek By Jowl are set to take up residency at the Barbican next year.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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