Othello, Swan Theatre, Stratford

Urgent and stunning but still a curiously empty production
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The Independent Culture

There are those who may see this production of Othello as one in which Antony Sher has something left to prove, but of course the real test is that of director Gregory Doran; and the prize is the crown of the old king of Stratford, Trevor Nunn.

Doran shares Nunn's gift for making every part of the stage, and every actor on it, contribute to the meaning of the play. Like Nunn, he can draw strong, thoughtful performances from actors, and, further, he can revive neglected plays (King John, the Jacobean season of two years ago) and make them new. He's got the charm ­ he's even got the hair. With this in mind, it is interesting to compare his production of Othello with Nunn's historic version of 1989, (and unfair though it may be, the temptation to do so is irresistible). This one is also set on a bare stage, in the round, in modern dress, with the star playing Iago. And in comparison with its predecessor, its weaknesses are apparent.

Before one realises this, however ­ and it takes some time ­ it's undeniably a cracking show. This Othello begins as it means to go on; with a bang. The scenes race by, spilling into each other, punctuated by urgent drum beats. When Cassio joins his fellow soldiers for a drink, the mood soon turns ugly, with the men tossing him about in a sheet and forcing liquor down his throat with spurious heartiness. Ken Bones's Brabantio is magnificent in his rage at being betrayed by his daughter, practically tearing himself in two with the force of his struggle to retain his dignity. And Sher's regimental Iago, the whiplash in his voice when he schemes to destroy the Moor as bluntly as if he were laying out a battle plan, is vigorous and cocky, getting plenty of laughs as he carefully blurts out the apparent slips that damn Cassio.

But as the play goes on, creeping doubts set in. Sello Maake ka Ncube is a charming Othello, majestic and benign, with a seductive lilt to his voice, but when possessed by the idea that his wife has been unfaithful he becomes less impressive, losing his grandeur.

Lisa Dillon's Desdemona, a brisk, capable woman of the period (the setting is the 1940s), seems more like the type to sort things out than die of love ­ not until the Willow Song does she appear vulnerable. Amanda Harris's Emilia ­ half the age of Sher, and chain-smoking and tossing her luscious Ann Sheridan waves ­ has far too much hard-bitten glamour to be Iago's wife and Desdemona's confidante. In the most peculiar casting of all, Cassio, as played by Justin Avoth, is a nervous, gawky schoolboy (his small beard merely accents his youth), as unlikely a customer for the whore Bianca as he is a source of worry for Othello.

Individual cases apart, Doran's Othello lacks a sense of darkness and dread, of the tightening noose. Nunn's version had this, both in his staging and in the unforgettable Iago of Ian McKellen, from whose mask of a reasonable man there gleamed the eyes of a psychopath. Sher's gross racism gets the hatred across but not the weakness and madness beneath. It is a lack that makes Othello's downfall seem not so much a tragedy as a mistake.