Othello, Argyle Works, Birmingham

Total Immersion: George Crumb, Barbican Hall, London

Ronald Samm signals the end of blacking-up to sing Othello, while a celebration fails to do justice to George Crumb

Of Graham Vick's site-specific productions for Birmingham Opera Company, Othello is the most austere. There are no propaganda posters (Idomeneo), no passport controls (Ulysses), no pine coffins or funeral parties (Don Giovanni), no giant Kewpie dolls (La traviata). Samal Blak's set designs are restricted to a raised platform and walkway, with little else but a thick red carpet and the blinding glare of search lights to transform the former factory into a military compound, mosque and bedroom. Having built a 250-strong community of local singers, actors and dancers and developed an ensemble company of soloists, it is as though Vick is challenging his audience, testing what we have learnt.

As with previous BOC productions, you have to move on command. (Three steps to the right, one to the left, in the dance celebrating Othello's victory.) Are we in Venice? Modern Birmingham? The tinderbox industrial suburb that Malcolm X addressed in 1965? Or in Fort Hood? Along with socks (no shoes allowed), each audience member is provided with a single black glove for the Black Power salute, while the symbolism of Desdemona's handkerchief is extended in the menacing, men-only jingling of morris (i.e. Moorish) dance, the brief Act IV prelude in which some women use scarves to tease their lovers and others are made to wear the niqab, and in the heroine's death. Strangled by her husband with her wedding veil, Desdemona is the victim of an honour killing.

Much has been made of the casting of Ronald Samm as Othello, yet the primary effect is to eliminate the distraction of a caucasian tenor in bad make-up and refine the focus on one man's fall to perdition. The secondary effect is to emphasise Desdemona's guileless delight in her husband, and her fatal inability to comprehend his feelings of displacement. She may be colour-blind but he is not, and neither is Iago (the magnificent Keel Watson): another first for a black British singer and one that hints at the tensions between West Indian and African communities in his contempt for the devout Moor.

As Iago, Watson's ability to turn the face of loyalty and good humour into one of cool, merciless hatred is never overplayed, never crude, almost conversational in his Credo. As Othello unravels, he exchanges his Western military uniform for a tunic and skull cap, praying to Allah as the chorus hail "the Lion of Venice". Samm's hero may not be the most beautifully sung or athletic, but his trajectory into jealous mania is expertly traced. I'd hazard a guess that Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin might be the source for his abrupt shifts from charm and poise into violence and paranoia, lunging at the chorus like a wounded beast.

Though the choruses are compromised by the movement direction, their commitment and vivacity is thrilling. Choreographer Ron Howell makes space for parallel interpretations of the rarely played ballet sequence, uniting morris, bhangra, hip hop and break dancers in the final bars. Robert Anderson (Lodovico), Antonia Sotgiu (Amelia), Joseph Guyton (Cassio), Byron Jackson (Montano) and Adrian Dwyer (Roderigo) offer spirited support, while Stephanie Corley's Desdemona is intensely, sweetly moving: an innocent in a guilty world. Aided by Stephen Barlow's lyrical reading of Verdi's score, her Willow Song and Ave Maria are spell-binding: a loving submission delivered with trembling intimacy across the vast space. This is rough, vibrant, provocative art from a passionate company. And if we have to wait a few more years for an ideal Othello, Samm, Vick and Watson have exposed the tradition of blacked-up singers as outmoded and unnecessary.

At around the time Malcolm X visited Smethwick, a mild-mannered composer from West Virginia discovered the poetry of Lorca. Discontented with his early work, George Crumb found his voice in that of the Spanish writer: a secretive, alert timbre that informs the very best of his work. But the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Total Immersion composer portrait was unflatteringly skewed by the inclusion of Crumb's three orchestral pieces, Star-Child (1977), Echoes of Time and the River (1967) and A Haunted Landscape (1984).

Crumb's genius is in chamber music, in the off-beat humour of Mundus Canis and the stealthy beauty of Music for a Summer Evening, performed in David Starobin's affectionate documentary, George Crumb: 'Bad Dog!'. In a large canvas, his wit and detail is lost to what could be termed modishness. Scored for Cambodian, Japanese, Brazilian and Caribbean percussion, with choreographed movements for woodwind and brass, Echoes has aged particularly badly, while the jewel-like piano suites played by Joanna MacGregor – A Little Suite for Christmas (1979) and Makrokosmos Volume I (1972) – are timelessly enchanting. Echoed in the shawm-like ululations of the oboe, the sour dance of the mandolin and the dusty clack of Hunan stones, soprano Anna Patalong's command of Lorca's strident and sensual lyrics in Guildhall New Music Ensemble's performance of Ancient Voices of Children (1970) was astonishing, the music utterly compelling.

'Othello': (0844 477 1000) to 19 Dec

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum