Theatre: Tragedy without the tears

Othello RST, Stratford Tales from Ovid Swan, Stratford Sleep With Me Cottesloe, London
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The Independent Culture
Some actors have to age more quickly than others. At the RSC, this year's Othello and Desdemona were last year's Romeo and Juliet. Zoe Waites has had to put on two to three years; Ray Fearon has had to put on 30 to 40.

Fearon is the first black Othello on the Stratford stage since Paul Robeson in 1959. Of course, Fearon looks too young, but Michael Attenborough's lively new production (like his Romeo and Juliet of last year) is clear, involving and unfussy. If it never quite takes off, the reason lies in the chemistry of the performances.

The designer Robert Jones conjures up night-time Venice through shafts of light in a damp mistiness, and bathes daytime Cyprus in warm sunshine. Chairs and a golden globe stand for the council chamber in Venice; suitcases and crates stand for the quayside in Cyprus. The officers wear red tunics with red stripes down their trousers: the Venetian empire looks very like the British one. This Edwardian period is just old enough. Their swords may be largely ceremonial, but when provoked, they use them in a fight. The drinking scene has the competitive upper-class rowdiness of the officers' mess.

Fearon is not tall. When Richard Cordery's Brabantio accuses Othello of stealing his daughter, he towers over Fearon, reversing the traditional image of the ageing father confronting the warrior Moor. But Fearon establishes a strong physical presence. This Othello has a thick beard, ear-ring and shaved head; he begins slowly, revealing his status in the unhurried sincerity with which he spaces out words, finding three syllables, for instance, in "wondrous". Early on, it works; but when he has to compare his thoughts to the Pontic Sea, we wish his grandeur had more volume and depth. Emotionally and musically, this is the Diet Coke version.

The impact that his youthfulness and lightness of tone has on the tragedy is redoubled by Richard McCabe's Iago. A natural comedian, McCabe plays Iago not as a comic role, but as a man with a deliberate comic persona: a portly, cherubic figure, with oily black hair and sideburns. He leaves us in no doubt that his malevolence is richly nourished, and we respond to the humour of his dastardly plotting. There lies the flaw in the chemistry. A heavier Othello and a graver Iago would engulf us more swiftly and deeply in the tragedy.

Zoe Waites's Desdemona, a pallid, smartly attired figure with a mind of her own, skilfully shows how this relationship is untested in a military context. Fearon nicely catches Othello's embarrassment when Desdemona speaks intimately to him in front of other soldiers. It's characterisitic of the evening's quieter virtues. Attenborough's main-house production doesn't feel substantially bigger than his small-scale touring one of Romeo and Juliet. Maybe this should have gone on the road with the other. I'd love to see Fearon and Waites do Romeo and Juliet one night and Othello the next.

It seems entirely appropriate that the RSC presents Ted Hughes's Tales From Ovid at Stratford. Ovid was a major influence on Shakespeare, who first read him at school, a few hundred yards from where the production is performed. It seems right too that the Young Vic director Tim Supple, who gave us stage versions of Grimm's Tales and The Jungle Book (as well as Hughes's own adaptations of Spring Awakening and Blood Wedding) should tackle it.

Tales From Ovid is unmistakeably in the Supple style. A group of youngish actors share the narrative, handing it on like a baton as they move in and out of characters. The stage is almost empty: a margin of sand surrounds a floor of copper tiles; upstage there is a well and a pile of leaves. An exotic range of musical instruments underscores the stories' far-flung origins.

For the first 20 minutes, as we hear how Tiresias lost his eyesight, Echo fell in love with Narcissus and Semele requested a love gift from Jupiter, the production captivates with the clean simplicity of its staging. As two serpents copulate, the lashes of two whips wriggle and writhe in the sand. Narcissus's pool is a circle of white rope dropped on to the gleaming tiles. And so on. But problems quickly set in. Supple and his co-adaptor Simon Reade have chosen 10 tales, and as one segues into another, the scope for dramatic development remains circumscribed.

Again and again, actors find themselves simply duplicating an action that is described in the text. The rich, compact imagery of Hughes's verse hardly needs further dramatisation: everything is there already. Supple's inventive brand of illustration becomes wearing, adding (at its least successful) a narrow literal counterpoint: when mythic characters make love, we gain little extra insight by watching actors come together to grunt and groan.

I left convinced that Tales from Ovid couldn't work as theatre. We can't act like that. In performance, it is almost impossible for young British actors to suppress the traces of irony in their voices. There is a little bit of Angus Deayton in us all. Leaving aside the matter of sheer beauty, you would have to go further East to find a stillness and authority that might convince us we were in the presence of gods and earth-shattering passions. If you prefer to hear Tales from Ovid spoken out loud, then buy the audiotape, read by Ted Hughes.

Hanif Kureishi made his name as a shrewd, irreverent chronicler of British Asian attitudes in My Beautiful Laundrette, and then became even more famous by writing Intimacy, a confessional novel about a restless, self- obsessed screenwriter who is on the point of leaving his wife and two children. In Sleep With Me, his first stage-play for 15 years, Kureishi returns to the theme of the restless, self-obsessed, screenwriter on the point of leaving his wife and two children.

Sleep With Me has the standard format for the weekend-in-the-country play: guests arrive, talk about university, wonder what's happening to their lives, have dinner, get drunk, either try to have sex or succeed in having sex, and then leave, either that night or the next morning. Kureishi tarts up this version with mobile phones, a photocopier in the house, coke-snorting in the summer-house, and chatting about the cappuccino brulee at The Ivy. The director Anthony Page has somehow persuaded actors of the calibre of Sian Thomas and Penny Downie to bring what emotional depth they can to this cringe-making event. They're thoroughly wasted in it.

Kureishi must be keeping a writer's notebook with smart thoughts about contemporary life on one side and a checklist of emotional banalities on the other. Mirthless aphorisms hit the courtyard tiles where the characters congregate. There are even in-jokes, as if this were the Christmas show at the Groucho Club. Only Jonathan Hyde, as the spiky-haired, hapless producer, finds a comic size and energy that's rooted in an engaging character; he deserves all the sex he gets. The others are mostly stereotypes.

'Othello' and 'Ovid': RSC Stratford (01789 295623) both in rep to 7 October. 'Sleep With Me': Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 452 3000) to 17 July.