Edinburgh Festival `99: The Bard lightens on-stage conflict as tongues collide

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WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S OTHELLO - A PLAY IN BLACK AND WHITE AUGUSTINE'S

THE SPOTLIGHTS encapsulate the two actors on stage like containers waiting to be broken open. One traps a young man speaking in Assamese, the other encircles a young woman responding to him in English. The darkness between the actors is like the linguistic barrier, taunting them with the fact that although they are performing on the same stage, the words they speak relegate them to different sides of the world. Which is why it feels like a miracle when Othello crawls from his spotlight to Desdemona's, and suddenly they start to talk the same language.

It is one of the more lyrical moments in a production that flips from the poetic to the irreverent, getting in as many digs at pretentious directors as possible. After a solemn opening, where the audience is presented with the silhouettes of five chanting, dancing actors, a voice suddenly protests: "Why the f**k did we decide to do the play in Kathakali?" This amusing reworking of Othello shows what happens when a European director asks a company made up of English and Indian actors to perform the play in the highly ritualised Kathakali style, and infuriates most of the cast by casting an outsider who cannot even speak English as the lead. Iago decides to stir up a rebellion, and the result is a conflict which finds neat parallels in Shakespeare's own meditations on jealousy.

A play about actors who find echoes of Shakespeare in their own lives could so easily come across as contrived, but director Roysten Abel has instead created a production full of humour which wears its Shakespearean structure lightly.

A lot of the performance's strength rests on the performance of Adil Hussain, as Othello, for such is his acting skill that, even when you don't understand his words, their speed and tone reflect his emotions so clearly that translation seems unnecessary. The anguish and tragedy of his situation is contrasted with the comic scenarios engineered by Barry John, a deceptively laid-back Iago, who moans about earnest directors, plies alcohol where clear-headedness is needed, and sows malicious gossip in order to undermine the cast.

Abel has enhanced a beautifully acted play with careful lighting - darkening the stage and using spotlights to intensify moments of heightened emotion, and flooding the stage with light to return to irreverent normality. The one jarring point comes at the end, when the cast points out there are so many possible endings, they don't know which one to use, a device that works neither conceptually nor dramatically.

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