Theatre: A fine case of less is Moor

From a slimmed-down classic to riffs on classic films, Sue Wilson casts an eye over two shows currently touring Scotland
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It may be a sad reflection on today's truncated attention spans, but there is no denying the sense, on reading the notice announcing that TAG's production of Othello runs for three hours, of bracing yourself for a potentially long, hard haul.

Mid-scale touring Shakespeare has a chequered history, to say the least, with too many companies acting as though the text's inherent artistic Brownie points obviate the need for creative effort on their part, or going to the opposite extreme and trying to be too clever by half.

TAG's slimmed-down - personnel-wise, at least - version thankfully plots a middle course between these poles, though the direction could certainly be pacier and the staging does feature some strangely jazzed-up elements, presumably in response to TAG's main brief of attracting younger audiences.

Particularly irritating is the use of electronic dance music. This is not to disapprove of the notion on principle, rather the fact that here it is not only out of place but completely superfluous, even where it is not deleterious to the drama.

Mostly, though the seven-strong cast deliver a solid display of mostly old-fashioned virtues, despite the non-period costumes - military uniforms for the men, plain dresses for the women - and futuristic set.

The latter remains something of an enigma, with its tall wire cages half- filled with what look like blue rocks, but serving effectively as a screen for the various episodes of spying and eavesdropping.

Ross Dunsmore's Iago stands out as the linchpin of the show, unusually borrowing certain elements of the similarly inscrutable but generally malevolent wise clowns found elsewhere in Shakespeare. He introduces a sparkle of gleeful comedy into his machinations, in a manner highly reminiscent of Puck's "Lord, what fools these mortals be".

While he also exudes a suitably diabolic venom when appropriate, this more mercurial approach contrasts pointedly with his master's oratorical loftiness and weakness for grandstanding, together with the tendency to be blinded by his own exalted self-image - born of an outsider's insecurities - characteristics sympathetically conveyed in Ade Sapara's stately portrayal. Veronica Leer breathes impressive life into the often thankless part of Desdemona, imbuing her with a blend of ardent vivacity and proud natural dignity. Her artless warmth helps set up a resonant opposition via the production's concentration on differences between male and female spheres of experience.

Othello's inexorable poisoning by the green-eyed monster is subtly cast in the light of current anxieties about men's emotional inarticulacy.

There's nothing remotely old-fashioned about Benchtours' latest invention, Carnivali, a joint venture with London's Insomniac Productions, devised in collaboration with writer Michael Duke but it might have helped considerably if there had been the odd nod to tradition.

For all the show's clever multi-media intertextuality - and other such buzz-words - it comes across as a set of stylistic and technical poses struck around a glaring absence of any elucidation. Set in a small, run- down hotel just south of the Mexican border, where four American gangsters arrive for a rendezvous with the mysterious Smiley on the night before the Day of the Dead, it draws heavily on the conventions of classic film noir. "Overtones of Key Largo and Bunuel's Exterminating Angels", says the programme. So heavily, in fact, that the actors start out lip-synching to a recorded soundtrack modelled on the genre.

This pretence that the play is really a film gradually breaks down as the characters begin to speak from the "scripted" dialogue, and, as the sound track stalls and loops back on itself, gives rise to all sorts of shenanigans with time-frames and continuity

Beyond its welter of hackneyed postmodern juxtapositions, playing with the formal and conceptual differences between film and theatre, any underlying point to the exercise remains utterly elusive.

`Othello', at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (0141-429 0022) until Sat, then touring Scotland until 17 Oct.

`Carnivali' is currently

on tour