EDINBURGH FESTIVAL 1993 / The new Othello: she's not at all bad

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S this woman, her name's Othello, she's a soldier and a Moor, and she's marrying old Brabantio's son, Desdemona. He's a nice-looking bloke, Desdemona, and he's obviously quite glamoured by all the things Othello has done in her life. The battles, sieges, fortunes. The hair-breadth scapes i'the imminent deadly breach. She's some lady.

In Othello, the Acting Initiative and director David Grindley have come up with an exhilarating exercise in role reversal. It's as if a computer has searched through the play swapping most (but not all - Iago stays where he is) of the 'hims' for 'hers'.

As wacky ideas go, this one buzzes with surprises. 'Pray you, lead on,' says Brabantio (Joe Collins), and it isn't just Roderigo (Amanda Brend) who heads across the room. The audience goes too. The venue is a church hall, there are no seats, and the only set is the corridor cage in the centre - like a chicken-run - with duck-boards, wire-meshing and chains hanging down.

If the treatment is gutsy, so too are the performances. When Iago, played with muscular clarity by Andrew McDonald, thinks about how he is going to do the dirty on Cassio, he sticks out a hand to the punter standing in front and asks: 'How? How?' You can't help but get involved.

Faith Edwards's poised and authoritative Othello grows with her descent. You follow her thoughts in close-up, leaning against the wire-meshing of the cage while, two feet away, she stuffs a pillow over her young husband's face. The audience, so often a lumpen mass, crowd round to watch. It's exciting stuff. But what's remarkable is that the journey from love to jealousy to remorse remains intact.

It gets quite tiresome on the Fringe, listening to the trade- fair talk about stand-ups, sitcoms and the way the industry is going. Here instead is an offbeat, provocative piece done on a shoestring. Someone ought to take it on tour.

A Millwall supporter downs his pints, vomits a takeaway and lets his pit bull terrier lap up the mess. He's the last and broadest character in the three monologues that Steven Berkoff presents in One Man. Up here, the master of savage disgust enjoys the veneration one associates with the Queen Mum. When he plays a football hooligan, you end up feeling soft about the guy.

It's not just that with his bulky forehead, his close- cropped hair and his 56 years, Berkoff looks as if he could stand in more easily for Erich Von Stroheim on the poolside terraces of Sunset Boulevard than the terraces of Millwall. But also that his physicality is so exact and extreme that he bestows a kind of grace on the most unlikely of subjects.

Berkoff doesn't speak lines, he acts them out using his whole body. Like a Richard Rogers building, he puts what's inside on the outside. If a door is going to creak, as it does in the first monologue, a story by Edgar Allan Poe, the word itself cr-ee-ee-ee-ea-kk-ss. As the out-of-work actor, in the second monologue, he builds up a nightmare life through the rhythm of the verse, the soundtrack, recurring scenes and his own pounding footsteps. It's

an awesome treadmill. In the land of the Fringe, this one- man show is king.

There's a clever, chilly play, with lightning dialogue, about people cheating the money markets around the time of Black Wednesday. Killing Him, by 23-year-old Crispin Whittell, has the qualities of his name: crispness and wit. It doesn't have much character, though. When the bird-watching flatmate (attractively played by Jonathan Aris) knocks a glass to the floor, it lies in splinters, its sharp edges glistening under the spotlights. Very like the play.

In her first one-woman show, Donna McPhail, who appears occasionally on Have I Got News for You, goes for the confessions of a post-feminist: when it's useful to play the little girl; the queue in the Ladies; and the female condom, unwrapped and waved around as if it's a shopping bag. Widening her eyes, she slams home her disbelief: 'It's ridiculous]'

The more McPhail keeps off the general stuff (Fergie, John Major) and sticks to what's closest to her the better. Halfway through she tells the audience that she's a lesbian. What follows is new material for her, but it's the best.

It's always good to see someone who has made their name in impro having to make it up on the spot. It happened the night I saw Greg Proops, the San Franciscan comic with the Buddy Holly glasses who is a regular guest on Whose Line is it Anyway?. Ten minutes into the show his microphone packed up. That killed the gag about the airline pilot for a start. Instead, Proops launched into an acidic account of what's gone wrong since he's been in Edinburgh. Yes, the guy can really do it.

'One Man', Assembly Rooms, 031-226 2428. 'Killing Him', Pleasance, 031-556 6550. Donna McPhail, Gilded Balloon, 031-226 2151. Greg Proops, Assembly, 031-226 2428. No further performances of 'Othello'.