Iago does not get hold of Desdemona's handkerchief without having to pay a forfeit in Rupert Goold's stirring Northgate Theatre production, which is now visiting Greenwich. Instead of simply handing it over, his wife, Emilia, hitches up her skirt and tucks the item under her garter in a pointed come-on. But if her aim is to arouse her husband and rekindle some warmth in their marriage, her tease is a sad failure. Finbar Lynch's superb Iago goes through the motions of seduction just enough to grab the prized object and leave Emilia distressed at the cold-hearted calculation of the trick. There have been productions in which sexual impotence has seemed to offer a partial explanation for Iago's drive to destruction. Goold's interpretation goes further and suggests that if the frigid villain is turned on by anyone, it is by Othello himself.
The tragic proceedings have been transposed to the Second World War. It is a khaki-clad army that descends on Cyprus - a garrison evoked, in Laura Hopkins's striking design, by mobile colonnades that can be shifted round to create spookily noir-ish street-corners for the nocturnal dark doings. In a programme note, we learn that, by the end of the fighting, there were 130,000 black GIs stationed in Britain. But if any of them managed to become generals in the British army, privy to the highest secrets of state, history has kept pretty quiet about it. That implausibility is not, however, as damaging as you might think. As Othello gathers momentum, it becomes an appalling, unstoppable nightmare, and here that artistically justifies the protagonist's hypothetical predicament. Had it been possible, this - sickeningly - is how it might well have turned out.
The American actor Ron Cephas Jones is smart, sexy casting for the lead. Tall, wiry and muscled, he is just the kind of alpha male who might trigger racist resentment, and he's a natural at the charismatic self-dramatisation that Othello has had to develop as protection. But he often gabbles the verse as though it were naturalistic dialogue and rarely gives the requisite sense of a hero who can fatally hypnotise himself with the beauty of his own verbal music. Lynch, by contrast, inflects Iago's lines thrillingly in a quiet, insinuating Irish brogue that manages to sound like ever-so-reluctant honesty to his dupes and outrageous deceit to the audience. When he sinks to his knees and tells Othello: "I am yours for ever", it's with a hushed, psychopathic intensity that betokens both homoerotic fascination and a recognition, at some level, of his unfathomable being, that he is on a suicide mission - there's no way he can annihilate this hero without destroying himself. The character's incorrigibility is here blackly comic. Even when the world is closing in on him, he can't resist stealing the wristwatch of the murdered Roderigo, and in the final scene, when Othello draws a sword across the back of his neck, Lynch's Iago pauses and then tosses his head in a defiant show of nonchalance. You could never get through to this man.
The production has strength in depth - with a personable Cassio from William Buckhurst, a movingly disillusioned Emilia from Teresa Banham and Kate Fleetwood's deeply affecting Desdemona, who delivers a blues-tinged version of the "Willow Song" with a soul-baring ardour that leaves the audience rapt. Recommended.
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