ARTISTIC director Daniel Evans cut his Shakespearean teeth at his new theatre with Hamlet earlier this year. It was an impressive debut, but Evans’ thrilling new version of Othello, with the dream casting of Dominic West and Clarke Peters, takes him to a new level.
This is as complete and exciting a production of this difficult and disturbing play as you could hope for. Evans is an intelligent and sensitive actor and as a director he brings those skills to bear in his vision of this nightmarish tale of jealousy, revenge and cruelty: the story of a noble man brought down by a combination of evil and his own folly to see the truth, a man who ‘loved not wisely but too well.’
The pairing of the former Wire TV stars as the Moor and his treacherous ensign Iago received much advance publicity, and there was always a fear that the duo might not live up to their billing.
In fact both are terrific, and West, in particular, is brilliant. Iago is always the star of this show, the Machiavellian schemer planning the downfall of his master while professing to be his closest confidante.
Coarse, brutal yet irresistible, West plays him with a cocky swagger and a Yorkshire accent - because of its association with honesty and trustworthiness, he has said. He’s repellent, yet compelling. Like Richard III, another intriguing monster, we’re complicit in his villainy, we share his scheming, and his plan to destroy Othello evolves before our eyes. He’s funny too, though we wince as we laugh with him. West’s projection, clarity of diction and verse-speaking is also a real joy, in an actor largely known for TV work.
Clarke Peters’ Othello, with a deep, velvety African accent, is more low-key, and in his early scenes brings a gentle, dignified bearing to the man who in his middle years finds sexual excitement and real love with a girl half his age. He and Desdemona’s attraction is palpable.
The success of Othello as a credible piece of psychological drama hinges on the pivotal scene where, at Iago’s prompting, Othello turns from doting new husband to future wife-murderer. In lesser hands this switch can seem incredible, unconvincing. Yet Iago’s toying with Othello, the way he feeds his suspicion of her infidelity with Cassio, and how he plays on the unsuspecting Moor like a musical instrument, is entirely satisfying. When Othello loses his composure and bursts out: “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,” grabbing him by the throat, and the pair signal their bonding with a blood pact provides genuine theatrical excitement.
If the second half never quite matches the intensity of the first it’s largely because Dominic West has less to do and we miss his dark, sardonic presence. And while Peters is fine as a noble warrior/lover, he’s less effective as the cuckolded lover; there’s too much breast-beating, hair-tearing and handwringing as substitutes for real passion.
Othello looks and sounds wonderful. Designer Morgan Large’s bold, spacious designs depicting 16th century Venice and Cyprus and Alex Baranowski’s spare yet evocative occasional music create a powerful atmosphere of intrigue and foreboding at the heart of the court.
And it’s not all about West and Peters. All praise to Lily James who makes Desdemona a beguiling sexpot, yet a true tragic heroine; Alexandra Galbraith whose world-weary Emilia is so much more than a supporting role; and to Brodie Ross, who as duped fool Roderigo brings some welcome moments of comedy.
And lovely to see Colin George, former Crucible director, back on his old thrust stage as Brabantio. A nice touch in the theatre’s 40th anniversary year.
A must-see then, for West’s star performance, but also to see a first-rate Shakespearean production that wouldn’t look out of place at the National or RSC.