THEATRE / Illuminating a heart of darkness

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The Independent Culture
The main stage of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre is so huge, you wouldn't be surprised to hear that it had more than one postcode. Bill Alexander's first production there as the new artistic director defiantly glories in its yawning vastness. Not for him, ornate space-occluding scenery or the reduced, safely habitable scale. Instead, the tragedy of Othello unfolds on a largely bare set of square, black paving stones, creating a network of parallel lines that seem to recede into infinity.

Alexander furnishes this dark cavern with bodies (a large crowd of extras fluently assemble into deep, painterly groupings) and gives it shape and substance with shadow and lighting effects. Some of these are thematically, as well as scenically, illuminating. During his warped, scheming soliloquy at the end of Act One (a speech which ends on the word 'light': 'Hell and night / Must bring this montrous birth to the world's light'), Hilton McRae's Iago is seen dousing an array of candles with an air of systematic destructiveness. His action gives you a premonition of the tragic terminus to which this plotting will lead: 'Put out the light, and then put out the light . . .'

In many respects, this production is the honourable antithesis of Trevor Nunn's intimate chamber version of the play for the RSC. That account was full of little details that attempted to explain the characters novelistically (Desdemona, for instance, hid a box of chocolates in a locked drawer not because she feared Othello would think she had an admirer but because, touchingly, she wanted to be thought too grown-up for girlish guzzling). This production, by contrast, is given to the arresting (and far from mindless) operatic gesture. As jealousy starts to poison his mind, Jeffery Kissoon's magnetic, strikingly distraught Othello sits with his destroyer at the foot of a huge white curtain which he clutches about him as though for security and then spectacularly collapses under during his epileptic attack.

The pace flags towards the end and some of the verse-speaking is a bit rough, but as an earnest of Alexander's aesthetic approach to solving the space-problem here, the production is distinctly appetite-whetting. As for the problem of Iago's evil, this version does not, as Nunn's did, strive to account for it psychologically. Here, in the final scene, there's a shivery hint of the unfathomably diabolic in McRae's sociable Scots Iago. Othello gives him the sort of deep stab wound that would comfortably finish off anyone but Rasputin. So you can understand why the onlookers take the precaution of crossing themselves when this Iago struggles up into a stiff parody of military attention and barks: 'I bleed, sir, like some squaddie', before relaxing with the taunt 'but not killed'.

Malignity is not so motiveless in Frank Pig Says Hello, Pat McCabe's stage version of his Booker shortlisted novel The Butcher Boy, which can now be seen at The Theatre Upstairs. Condensed here to a two-person performance-piece, it shows you how a strange, damaged boy in small-town Ireland lives well up to the fact that he doesn't stand a chance in life (mad mother; alcoholic father) and eventually takes out his murderous feelings of rejection (by his blood brother, above all) on a local woman.

Face pushed forward in an awful, snuffling pig's leer, David Gorry's thin whelp of a Frankie is repellent and piteous at the same time, his rock-bottom self-worth (evident in a battery of compulsively repeated anxious gestures) only heightened by the comic- book or rock'n'roll bravado he feigns. He's like some grotesque silent-film clown, increasingly driven into a warped inner world. Joe O'Byrne's production is darkly knockabout, but the message seems depressingly determinist. To say that I couldn't wait for this hectic, confusing adaptation to end is partly, however, a tribute to Gorry's skills.

Othello continues at the Birmingham Rep (021-236 4455); Frank Pig at the Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court (071-730 1745).

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