Theatre: Tragedy without the tears

Othello RST, Stratford Tales from Ovid Swan, Stratford Sleep With Me Cottesloe, London

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama