OTHELLO
Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 3 February, 1999

Nigel Roper's production for Asylum Theatre Company shows far more thoughtfulness and consideration of the play as a whole than does his Macbeth with the same cast (playing on alternate nights to this show), but is still not particularly distinguished overall. In fact, if anything, thought is rather too much the keynote here; the proceedings would benefit from a greater show of passion.

Richard Benn's diminutive, shaven-headed Moor is by and large a cool customer. He occasionally explodes, most notably on "Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore", but his growing jealousy seems to fill his veins with ice rather than fire; not only is he quite composed throughout his murder of Desdemona, but his humiliation of her before the visiting magnificoes seems a moment of deliberate sadism rather than blind fury he even makes "Goats and monkeys!" sound like a formal salutation. He is matched by Tom Weatherhead's Iago, who is so far removed from the mould of growling wickedness that he not only seems largely unflappable a positive Jeeves of malice but frequently even tentative and diffident in going about his plots. He is also called upon to gesture too often, and obviously feels awkward when miming the copulation of entire menageries in the opening scene. It is, however, an inspired touch to set the two crucial exchanges in which Iago infects Othello's mind with the green-eyed monster during fencing sessions; unlike in much of the rest of the Moor's conduct, his disintegrating composure is here given visible, active form.

Rebecca Long's Desdemona is sweet to the point of prissiness, sometimes seeming more concerned with her elocution than how she may have wronged her lord; Darren Lee's Roderigo is a buffoon even by the buffoonish standard of Roderigos, and quite out of place in an otherwise so restrained production. As can often happen, Emilia steals her scenes (in the bizarre 1970s musical Catch My Soul, for instance, the show-stopping number is Emilia's "You Told A Lie"); here, Giovanna Phillips is alone among the cast in daring to show quick, deep and above all human emotional responses.

Even more so than the same company's Macbeth, this is a show which brings in the set-text audience. On the first night, a houseful of A Level students seemed, as I eavesdropped, to be divided in their opinions of the piece, some praising its clarity, others bemoaning its pace (three and a quarter hours in Riverside Studio 3 is, it must be said, not a prospect to quicken the heart). The second half, though, saw a continuing ebb of sympathy among the teens, such that any blackout of more than a few seconds was gratefully seized upon as a chat-break direct evidence that the insidious compulsion of Shakespeare's play is sadly lacking in Roper's production.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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