Theatre: Young Moor's almanac

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The Independent Culture
OTHELLOS, LIKE policemen, seem to get younger and younger. In Michael Attenborough's extremely fresh and involving new mainstage production, set in the early 20th century, the Moor of Venice is played by a bearded, shaven-headed Ray Fearon. He is an actor who, only a couple of seasons back, made a big impression with his charismatic Romeo. And therein lies the rub. As was the case, in my view, with the casting of another glowingly youthful, fighting-fit performer, David Harewood, in Sam Mendes's recent National Theatre staging, the painful impact of the play is blunted if you level the age gap between Othello and Desdemona (here a fine, mettlesome Zoe Waits) to that between Romeo and Juliet.

Indeed, Attenborough has had to cut the text to accommodate Fearon's conspicuous lack of maturity. When this Othello hunts for reasons for his wife's supposed infidelity, he declares "haply, for I am black" but revealingly leaves out "or for I am declin'd/Into the vale of years". But the difference of age is important since it extends that range of opposites - racial, cultural and social - which simultaneously makes the central couple's love a wonderful leap of faith and renders it hideously vulnerable to the insinuations of Iago. The villain triggers what we would now call a midlife crisis.

Fearon's youth is against him here. Competent, watchable but hollow and vocally monotonous, he never arouses the requisite anguished embarrassment in the audience. At his most impressive, tellingly, when he's stripped to the waist, he fails to suggest a man desperately struggling to cling to a grandiose self-image that, thanks to Iago, he has begun to doubt. When he confronts the Venetian grandees, you can neither believe that this low key pin-up has had a long exotic past or that such slow and nerveless verse-delivery ever managed to spellbind Desdemona. The fault is less with Mr Fearon than with the trend for premature promotion of the young. Any takers for Leonardo DiCaprio's Lear?

The production none the less has energy, tension and many smart staging ideas. For example, the scene of Cassio's disastrous inebriation is presented as a very English regimental drinking contest, during which Cassio suddenly takes violent exception when the snobby, loutish male high jinks turn to miming fellatio. Above all, the production boasts Richard McCabe's splendid, sinisterly comic Iago. It's as though this jowly, Brylcreemed, bulgy-eyed figure can only restrain himself from knifing the rest of humanity by standing stiffly and permanently to attention and dispensing smug, matey innuendos, that, like the accordion that he hilariously whips out at the regimental firework party, represent the willed sociable side of his psychotic agenda. The production lays a trail of artfully placed clues (his wife seems to give him Desdemona's handkerchief in the starving hope of a recompensing snog which he briskly terminates), which suggest that one of the causes of Iago's nihilistic jealousy is sexual impotence. A grisly pact with the Moor is this villain's idea of a shuddering climax.

But with Mr Fearon keening over the murdered Desdemona more like a little boy wailing for his lost mummy than a mature man who has staked and lost his whole sense of identity on her, I still look forward to a non-ageist Othello.

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