Cheek by Jowl's modern-dress Othello begins in characteristic fashion. Thecompany assemble and pose like pieces waiting to be moved in an elaborate game.
Cheek by Jowl's modern-dress Othello begins in characteristic fashion. Thecompany assemble and pose like pieces waiting to be moved in an elaborate game. Nick Ormerod's traverse-shaped setting is spare - just five coffin-shaped trunks. From the start, the director Declan Donnellan makes you aware that in this tragedy, people become trapped and mangled in others' skewed perceptions of them. Characters are often conjured into being on stage by description and hearsay, silently drifting around those who are talking about them and occupying psy-chologically expressive positions in relation to the action.
This strategy of fleshing out what is in the mind's eye is perhaps overplayed, but works well in conveying a sense of Iago as a diseased surrogate dramatist. When he pollutes Othello's imagination with the fabricated story of sharing a bed with the slumbering, fantasising Cassio, the actor playing Cassio mimes the incident while, lying on another trunk, Desdemona lets out an orgasmic cry. This enactment of a sordid, imaginary scenario emphasises its excruciating reality for Othello and the extent to which Iago stage-manages the thoughts of others as well as their actions.
Jonny Philips brings a malign energy and a fierce, ferrety presence to the latter role. He seems capable of believing the far-fetched reasons he puts forward for hating the Moor. When the hero kills himself, this Iago screams "No!" as though his own warped principle of being depends on the existence of the love-hate object he was hell-bent on destroying. The drawback is that it is impossible to believe he could ever have ever earned a reputation for honesty. You feel contaminated just by looking at him.
Young for the part but possessed of great natural authority, the excellent Nonso Anozie shows you a hero who, far from trading on grandiloquence, seems desperate to remain controlled and to minimise differences. You wonder how such a formal, establishment figure managed to attract Desdemona with his exotic otherness, but the spurts of anguished fury that erupt through this measured front are truly terrifying.
The production is not above playing to the gallery. This must be the first time that the famous handkerchief has been used as the whip in a sadomasochistic game between Cassio and Bianca, and as the wipe for the inevitable result. But it's also full of insight, beautifully depicting the intimacy between Caroline Martin's Desdemona and Jaye Griffiths' worldly, sensuous Emilia. Kicking their shoes off after a black-tie dinner, they lounge on the soon-to-be-fatal bed, trying to see the funny side of marriage and cuckoldry. There's a telling touch in the final seconds, too. Delivering the last speech, Lodovico glances at his watch, an impatient gesture implying that, where the other tragedies leave a hole in nature, the pity of this one is that it can be handled administratively.
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