Othello: A double act to die for
The stars of The Wire are reuniting for Othello – but they’ll find the play’s central rivalry much tougher than a cop drama, says Michael Coveney
Wednesday 07 September 2011
Dominic West was born in Sheffield and is going back there as Iago in a production of Othello, Shakespeare's sublime tragedy, with his old mate from The Wire, Clarke Peters, in the title role.
On paper, it's an intriguing double act: the two straight-talking detectives from those mean Baltimore back streets now cast in a deceptive mesh as devious rivals, riven with jealousy and spite in Renaissance Venice and far-flung Cyprus, the one destroying the other while the other soars on wings of rhetoric.
They have gone out of their way, West and Peters, to say what very good friends they are, and what very nice blokes. This is slightly worrying in a play that thrives on animosity and bitter rivalry for the audience's attentions: Iago's a beast we loathe and detest, but also tolerate, because he talks to us, and explains everything; Othello's a big booby we love and pity, mainly because he spouts so beautifully.
There is no cause for laddish cooperation here. Kenneth Tynan said that the play was a theatrical bullfight, with Othello cast as a noble bull charging the handkerchief in the wristy grip of the dominating matador, Iago. The great critic made it his mission in life as the National Theatre's first literary manager to persuade Laurence Olivier to play the bull; and Olivier made sure the matador was manacled.
Olivier's performance at the Old Vic in 1963 was a watershed in our classical theatre: the greatest stage performance from our last great romantic heroic tragedian. According to Franco Zeffirelli, this was an anthology of everything that had been discovered about acting in the last three centuries. And yet, the performance was also derided.
Why? Because Olivier had "blacked up" at a moment in cultural history when to do so suddenly became controversial. The main bone of critical contention, though, was the apparent discrepancy of stage power between Olivier's leonine, sulphurous Moor and Frank Finlay's subtly understated Iago.
Iago usually steals the show: Ian McKellen certainly did from Willard White's doltish, susceptible bass baritone in Trevor Nunn's 1989 Royal Shakespeare Company production; and so did Simon Russell Beale from David Harewood's too young, too sympathetically intelligent Moor in 1997 at the National Theatre.
Olivier, who'd trained his voice down and submitted to an all-over body make-up buffed with a chiffon cloth ("How now, brown cow?" said Maggie Smith, his Desdemona, after he accused her of swallowing her lines), was clear that he didn't want a witty, Machiavellian Iago; he wanted a solid, honest-to-God NCO.
But, in Finlay, he got a little more than he bargained for. Finlay wasn't remotely boring, and strode around the stage as if he owned it, barking his intentions with a confidential swagger.
The trouble has always been the balance between the protagonists, depending on whose ego is the bigger. Robert Stephens and Edward Fox couldn't agree on this and cancelled each other out, disastrously, in Regent's Park in 1976.
Olivier convinced himself that Iago should be upstaged because he'd read F R Leavis's essay arguing that he is "subordinate and merely ancillary". But when he played Iago himself, in 1938 at the Old Vic, he and his director, Tyrone Guthrie, consulted the Freudian psychoanalyst, Ernest Jones, on the relationship between the two protagonists: and Jones said they were deeply in love with each other.
"Oh dear, we can't tell Ralphie," said Olivier, who nonetheless confused his colleague by planting a huge smackeroo on his lips one morning in rehearsal. "There, there now, my dear fellow..." murmured a patient Ralph Richardson, adjusting his dress and Olivier's lapels.
Interestingly, the best productions of the play often exploit a symbiotic interaction, if not a sexual one. Terry Hands's RSC staging in 1985 pitched Ben Kingsley as a Moorish Othello with dreadlocks against David Suchet as his confidential foil; they could easily have swapped roles without us noticing.
John Neville and Richard Burton actually did alternate in the roles at the Old Vic in 1956, though Tynan felt that each was better suited to playing Cassio, the hero's favoured lieutenant whom Iago falsely dubs Othello's cuckold.
But the critic had never really recovered from his boyhood experience of seeing the Czech colossus Frederick Valk duelling with Donald Wolfit's sweating Iago, a performance worth seeing, said Tynan, "if only to hear Mr Wolfit giving the hapless word 'Nature' its full eight or nine syllables."
An even more radical critic, Jan Kott, surprisingly insisted that Othello belonged to the poetics of the Baroque, visualising Othello, Desdemona and Iago "in black and gold, dipped in Rembrandtian darkness; light falls on their faces." This effect was exactly achieved 50 years later, when Michael Grandage's superb Donmar Warehouse production made a beautiful painting of those three roles as occupied by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kelly Reilly and Ewan McGregor.
That revival emphasised the intimate side of the tragedy in a chamber theatre approach that has often undermined Iago's compelling rhetoric and Othello's inspired magniloquence. Too often in recent years one has heard perfectly good black actors – usually too young – demanding to be washed in "steep-down gulfs of liquid fire" as though looking for a feather duster, duckie.
The only actor who ever looked as though he could match Olivier was Michael Gambon, who sketched a performance in a heavily cut production by Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough 20 years ago; but of course he had to "black up" (something no white actor now contemplates) and left his sad sack of a helpless dupe propped up in a regional doorway, unwilling to break open the locked entrance he had lately breached as Arthur Miller's Eddie Carbone.
Gielgud, who was widely known to have harboured a genuine loathing for his 1961 Stratford Iago, Ian Bannen – the actor, not the performance – defined Othello as a coarse-bred saint overcome by villainy. Tynan said that Gielgud was more of a heraldic eagle whose wings had been clipped than a wounded bull.
Niceness too often gets the better of the odd couple, even in that brilliant "novelistic" Edwardian update by Trevor Nunn; Ian McKellen was a definitive, show-stealing Iago, stalking Willard White's sonorously intoned but curiously inflexible Othello. White had lately played a wonderful Porgy in Porgy and Bess for Nunn at Glyndebourne; Clarke Peters also played Porgy, less successfully, for Nunn in a West End production at the Savoy.
Peters, in fact, is a baritone singer but a tenor actor, which might count against him if we're looking for Olivieresque greatness. We're more likely to encounter pained confusion, prompted by Dominic West's reasonable, insinuating and all-pervasive charm, a nasty niceness he's lately cultivated as the serial killer Fred West in the television drama Appropriate Adult.
'Othello', Sheffield Crucible (0114 249 6000) 15 September to 15 October
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