Othello, Swan, Stratford<br></br>World Music, Donmar Warehouse, London<br></br>Suddenly Last Summer, Lyceum, Sheffield<br></br>On Blindness, Soho, London

Black, white and a nasty shade of green
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

National attitudes to foreigners were headline news last week and, with provocative simultaneity, race relations have loomed large in the theatre. In Gregory Doran's new RSC production of Othello, the black general (Sello Maake ka-Ncube) is clearly not native to his employers' city-state of Venice. Certainly, he is semi-assimilated and successful, standing tall in his khaki uniform, Sam Browne belt and polished jack boots. Indeed, he essentially has the same kit as his ensign, except that Antony Sher's moustachioed, thuggishly stocky Iago looks more like a wannabe Hitler or Mussolini.

Maake ka-Ncube's Othello also wears an African beaded necklace under his jacket and, even before you glimpse that, you sense a trace of cultural uncertainty beneath his proud, assured air. Though he doesn't flinch when his enraged new father-in-law accuses him of bewitching Desdemona, his abstemiously blank expression - eyes front - suggests this is not the first time he has taken racist flak. His own references to his unpolished speech sound genuinely self-deprecating, making his susceptibility the more credible when he is encouraged to doubt Desdemona's love.

At the same time, this Othello comes to mirror Sher's Iago in a tragically twisted way, for intense sexual insecurity comes across as the white man's principal infirmity too. Sher's seething bitterness about the Moor's promotion gives way to flinching, tearful grief when he mentions that his wife, Emilia, may have been unfaithful. He passes on that agony to Othello like a virtual venereal disease, verbally prodding and probing the weak spots in his commander's mind. Sher's comic timing is horribly consummate as he feigns the hesitations of a decent chap. His covert ecstasy when Lisa Dillon's distressed Desdemona falls into his arms is appallingly funny and ghastly.

Maake ka-Ncube has moments of expansive joy - spinning Dillon in the air like a little white hanky - and fits of equal ferocity when he hurls Sher into a wire fence. But overall he is, unfortunately, not as gripping as Sher. Dillon is also slightly too "girl-next-door". It is, in fact, Amanda Harris's Emilia who - looking on with cynicism then growing concern - is absolutely compulsive viewing.

In Steve Waters' new play, World Music, Jean Kiyabe (Ray Fearon) is of Muntu stock, from Africa, and just arrived in Brussels. He has been invited to address a European parliamentary conference and has fled a genocidal massacre in his homeland, Irundi - a fictional state based on Rwanda and Burundi. He is in Belgium thanks to Geoff (Kevin R McNally), a British MEP of the Old Labour school.

Geoff knows a thing or two about Irundi since, as a young man in 1980, he taught in the same village where Jean was clearing the bush for the post-colonial republic. Nonetheless, a diplomatic MEP called Alan questions Geoff's "expert" opinions. Jean gives a critical speech likening Europe to "one great hungry bird". However, a subsequent investigative report shows that Jean was a leader in the massacre. In the past we see the young Geoff (Paul Ready) in Irundi. He objects to Jean's domineering attitude to his Kanga maidservant Odette, but as he learns of the Muntu's ancestral suffering, he bonds with him.

Waters intriguingly slices up Geoff's story and presents it like a slide show, out of order. This creates a sense of fleeting encounters, leaving potentially worrying gaps in our knowledge. At points, it's not clear what Waters is suggesting as Geoff allies himself with two genocidal collaborators. However, the lack of moral clarity is, surely, the point, and keeps you thinking long after the show has ended. Deservedly transferring from the Sheffield Crucible, this piece tackles international politics with a directness and sweep that is brave and stimulating. Waters, in fact, looks like David Hare's successor. Josie Rourke's production, set on a simple concrete platform, is fluid and gripping. The cast occasionally hype up the politicians' conflicts, and Sebastian Harcombe's chillingly strategic Alan feels almost caricatured. Still, Fearon's Jean has compelling swagger while Ready's depiction of a sweet, impressionable adolescent is funny and sharp, and Nikku Amuka-Bird's Florence unsettlingly blends honest sexuality and servile gratitude.

Managing to run both the Donmar and Sheffield's Crucible and Lyceum theatres, director Michael Grandage is - thankfully - ruling his theatrical empire with benign aplomb. Diana Rigg and Victoria Hamilton head the cast in his new production of Tennessee Williams's sexually dark, 1950's drama, Suddenly Last Summer. Here rich, old Mrs Venable accuses her poor niece, Catharine, of snatching away her beloved son Sebastian and tarnishing his memory. Rigg's matriarch, hunched in a gauzy dress, is a peculiarly menacing, repressive old bird. Incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, Hamilton's Catharine insists on repeating her unseemly story: that Sebastian revealed his taste for dark-skinned beggar boys when she travelled abroad with him, and he was eventually killed by an avenging pack of them.

This is a suspenseful production. But Christopher Oram's set is a tad over the top and composer Adam Cork's score melodramatically underlines the ominous. However, Hamilton's Catharine is poignantly shaky and stubborn, while Mark Bazeley's Doctor Cukrowicz - hovering between falling in love with his patient and being seduced by Mrs Venable's offers of funding - keeps you on tenterhooks.

On Blindness, a new touring play by Glyn Cannon, is a collaboration between Graeae, the troupe whose casts include disabled actors, the script-nurturers Paines Plough, and the experimental gang, Frantic Assembly. I've never seen a production that plays such intelligent games with different means of communication, allowing for performers and spectators who may be deaf, blind or otherwise physically impaired. Cannon follows two office colleagues, the chronically shy Edward and the sexually forthright Shona, on separate night-outs after work. Shona goes to a supper party at which Gaetano, an artist, unveils an explicit nude painting of her which shocks her partner Dan. Meanwhile, Edward seems hopelessly unable to make either conversation or love to his blind, clearly keen date, Maria.

Unfortunately, Cannon's writing doesn't rise to the occasion when Scott Graham's Edward finally manages to describe the (physically veiled) naked beauty of Karina Jones's Maria. However, the overlaying of multiple methods of expression is enriching, explorative and slick. The cast speak and sign, sometimes both at once, sometimes sliding from one language to the other. Expressionistic dance on a near-bare stage is also mixed in with descriptive voice-overs and with typed surtitles which, at one point, wittily flash up on Gaetano's in-your-face painting (design by Julian Crouch). The ensemble are energised and humorous too, including Mat Fraser as the painter, and Jo McInnes as the feisty Shona. Pioneering.


'Othello': Swan, Stratford (0870 609 1110), to 3 April; 'World Music': Donmar, London WC2 (0870 060 6624), to 13 March; 'Suddenly Last Summer': Lyceum, Sheffield (0114 249 6000), to Sat; 'On Blindness': Soho, London W1 (020 7478 0100), to 13 March; West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700), 16 to 20 March; Door, Birmingham (0121 236 4455), 23 to 27 March