At last! Cheek by Jowl is up and running again. This high-calibre company has been virtually on hold since 1998 when founding director Declan Donnellan and his designer Nick Ormerod headed off to win huge acclaim with Moscow's Maly Drama Theatre and the Bolshoi. Now they are back in the UK, staging Shakespeare's Othello - which they last tackled back in 1982.
Ormerod's set design is simple and spare with the audience banked on either side of a long dark space that's furnished with five military cargo crates. Darting among these on their way to war-committee meetings, the pinstriped governors of Venice appear to be hurrying round a maze of alleys or corridors. Simultaneously, Nonso Anozie's Othello and Caroline Martin's Desdemona come face to face and are transfixed in a pool of light: an immortalised moment of love-at-first-sight and a still point in a hectic world.
Donnellan's brilliant stroke is to keep the key characters on stage whenever they are being spoken of by others. Thus, they visibly haunt their lovers and obsessed enemies. Most poignantly, the sense of imminent loss is heightened as Jonny Phillips's Iago starts besmirching Desdemona's reputation while we see her - standing on one of the gun crates like a makeshift pedestal - still luminously beautiful, as if pictured in her husband's memory. This also makes one think of Hermione's statue in The Winter's Tale (the late romance Donnellan staged with the Maly), even as one knows that, tragically, the marital jealousy will be fatal here, with no magical resurrection.
Phillips's Iago is, meanwhile, like some decimating Prospero, armed with a swagger stick instead of a wand. When he soliloquises, plotting out his drama of destruction, his victims stand around him impotently suspended in time and - in this ironically defenceless, open-plan realm - he has only to conceive of dropping Desdemona's handkerchief into Cassio's hands, then reach over and, hey presto, it is done.
This production has its weak points. There are some reductive textual cuts and Anozie can sound vocally lightweight, skimming over certain richly lyrical lines and visceral curses. Inversely, Phillips slightly overdoes the vibrato and menacing, slow delivery of his speeches, though it does create an intense, dream-like atmosphere. His emotional ambiguity is most intriguing, for you are never quite sure if he is acting or actually quivering with regrets as he hesitates in his tête-à-têtes with Othello. Moreover, his sudden leap forward and gaping silent mouth - in reaction to Othello's suicide - might be morbid ecstasy or suppressed love surfacing too late.
Physically, both the male leads are riveting. Skeletally gaunt and unshaven, Phillips looks like a desert rat (both animal and military) and a viper (spitting as if his mouth tastes poisonous). In contrast, Anozie is a mountain of a man. That's to say, touching when he is a gentle giant with Martin's Desdemona - who stands on tiptoe to kiss him - and horrifying when he strangles her, lifting her above his head with her legs thrashing against his waist. Martin is herself outstanding, still girlish and tragically confident that her husband's love (unlike her father's) is reliable. Jaye Griffiths' black Emilia becomes profoundly moving as well, lounging with Desdemona on her bed like a tender big sister, then proving ferociously devoted and dying by her side. All in all, this is an ensemble realising a directorial vision that is full of insights. Well worth catching.
Romeo and Juliet is a bumpier ride. This transfer from Iceland to the West End (and first seen at the Young Vic last year) may yet prove an alternative Christmas crowd-puller since it mixes Shakespeare's love story with circus and clowning routines. It's something like Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream mixed up with West Side Story, karaoke and commedia. Gisli Örn Gardarsson's Romeo is a handsome fashion victim who hangs around on trapezes, sporting elfin, Adam Ant-style face paint. He has a slightly irritating air of fancying himself, not helped by the fact that he has cast himself and directed the show without great skill. The Capulets' grand dance is hardly impressive, with a few disco moves and a two-tier human pyramid. Likewise, Tybalt's gang are supposed to be scary fire-eating punks, but they merely prowl around blowing out their flambeaux.
However, you cannot but enjoy this troupe's jovial bounce, as Paris keeps bursting into ludicrous cabaret numbers ("Everything's going my way") and as Juliet's Nurse - played by a huge bearded bloke - galumphs around in fake titties. This is actually the funniest and most lovable Nurse I have seen, and Nina Dögg Filippusdottir's Juliet is charming and feisty. There are also a handful of transcendent romantic and tragic moments: not least when Romeo hangs, literally head over heels, and lifts Juliet up to kiss in mid-air; and when he dispenses with words altogether in the Capulets' tomb and dances - sort of - lying on the ground with her corpse in his arms, as if they are turning over in bed.
This doesn't leave much room for Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America, written by Australia's Stephen Sewell. In this dark thriller, an Ivy League professor called Finch openly argues that Bush's War Against Terror is exploiting collective fears and nationalistic fantasies of righteousness. He then finds himself in a near-Kafkaesque nightmare, hunted down by a brutal special agent, with the possible collaboration of his neo-conservative colleagues. Now, this is a wordy play with some strained twists and wooden lines. It also propagates its own climate of anti-Republican potential paranoia. But in the main, it is chillingly believable as well as surreal. Sam Walters' in-the-round production has claustrophobic intensity. Jonathan Guy Lewis's Finch argues about political thinkers, from Aristotle to Marx, with a passion that makes the moral debate stimulating, and David Rintoul is hair-raising as the anonymous agent, kicking around Finch's office in cowboy boots and punching him in the face with a gun when he refuses to conform. Alarming.
'Othello': Riverside Studios, London W6 (020 8237 1111), to 4 December; 'Romeo and Juliet': Playhouse, London WC2 (020 7839 4401), to 5 March; 'Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America': Orange Tree, Richmond (020 8940 3633), to 11 DecemberReuse content