Othello, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon<br/>Breakfast With Jonny Wilkinson, Menier Chocolate Factory, London

Racism without redemption
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A black grand piano is symbolically mounted on an upended white one in the otherwise bare design for the Munich Kammerspiele's version of Othello. The composer-pianist, an overly self-dramatising Jens Thomas, pounds this instrument - even crawling into it to bash and pluck the strings at one point - to provide distraught accompaniment to an abbreviated, two-hour adaptation in contemporary idiom by Feridun Zaimoglu and Gunter Senkel.

Luk Perceval's production was the first foreign visitor to the RSC's Complete Works Festival, and I found it purgatory to sit through. The shadowy lighting is an insult to both the audience and the actors, whose features can often barely be discerned. The performances waste no opportunity for degenerating into crude rant, and the blocking - which regularly places the players delivering dialogue out front to the audience rather than to one another - does not promote subtlety in the presentation of relationships.

The publicity promised a distillation that would "take us to the emotional core of Shakespeare's tragedy", but first-timers would get a very impoverished impression of the original from this. Wolfgang Pregler's small, stocky Iago is a non-stop fountain of cynical filth. "Love, honour and duty are a pile of shit," he proclaims. His motivation for destroying Othello comes across as a mix of relentless racism and sexual jealousy. What is missing is the crucial sense that Iago's nihilistic mission is, in its twisted way, a massive compliment to the love between Othello and Desdemona, which is a glorious affront to his reductive worldview.

Not that there's anything charismatic in the portrayal of the hero by Thomas Thieme, a paunchy, balding white actor who plays the role without make-up and, because of the script, the glamorous, grandiloquent music that characterises the discourse of Shakespeare's hero.

The presence of one black actor, Sheri Hagen as Emilia, is supposed to heighten the embarrassment of the racism, but just as embarrassing is the insensitive way this excellent part has been trimmed down. Julia Jentsch is a potentially moving Desdemona, but the production fails to involve you in her fate. A version of the play that comes to an abrupt halt at her death should by rights leave you feeling cheated of Othello's subsequent agonised journey to suicide. Here, though, I was stoically grateful.

Chris England and Arthur Smith scored a West End hit with An Evening with Gary Lineker, a likeable sitcom in which a party of football fans watched TV coverage of England losing to West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final. Now, England returns with Breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson, an entertaining, light play set in a rugby club where the members are watching a live transmission of the 2003 World Cup final. On the pitch, it's England vs Australia; in the bar, it's Dave, the earnest club chairman (Norman Pace), vs the first-team coach, Matt, a loud, boorish Aussie (Michael Beckley), who is determined to seize the chairmanship in the electoral contest next day.

The plot is an improbable tale of blackmail, shenanigans in the showers, secret deals with property developers and machinations within machinations. Only a curmudgeon would mind, though, given that the cast of Jonathan Lewis's engaging production adeptly bring out the gusto and good nature of the piece. From Tony Bell's exuberantly self-centred Nigel (who's aggrieved by the continual phone calls from his wife as she goes into labour) to Beth Cordingly's sharp and attractive Nina (the women's team captain), the performances brim over the outlines of the stereotyped characterisation.

'Breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson' to 2 July (020-7907 7060)

Comments