The Critics: Black and white and noir all over

Early on in Sam Mendes's new superb production of Othello, the Duke and senators meet to discuss reports that the Turkish fleet is on the move. A few desks and swivel chairs are brought in to make an operations room. Here, officials in pinstripe suits cradle brandy glasses, puff on cigars and pore over maps. The late-night atmosphere is one of disciplined urgency.

A desk officer puts down the phone and relays the news that the Turkish fleet is heading from Rhodes to Cyprus. Othello (David Harewood) enters, wearing a dinner jacket, his black tie hanging loose. He might be a sporting hero dropping in after an awards dinner. As an example of relocating a play from one period to another, the scene is a tour de force. We are in the 1930s or 40s, and every detail comes over as fresh and involving. Every one serves the narrative.

You can judge this from the audience. The outraged Brabantio (a croakingly gruff Trevor Peacock) interrupts this government crisis with a private matter. The Duke (the immaculate Clifford Rose) promises Brabantio that whoever seduced his daughter will be punished. Then he learns the person in question is Othello. This was not the only moment during the First Night when the Cottesloe audience unexpectedly laughed. It was a quick, appreciative laugh. The sort that says: nice twist.

In this co-production with the Salzburg Festival, Mendes hits top form by making each twist exact and true. Othello unfolds with the brooding tension of a noir thriller. Reimagined with this attentiveness, we don't need to be nudged to recognise plenty of parallels. In the operations room, the Duke appeases Brabantio with a politician's guile. Othello is "far more fair than black". The chuckle from the officers that accompanies this remark suggests they all know Othello isn't one of them, but they need him badly and - right now - they don't intend to dwell on it.

Harewood's charismatic Othello has charm, poise and superficial confidence. He smiles, takes criticism in his leisurely stride, and replies with an eloquent sense of his own worth. Just a little vain, he is the successful outsider: this is the vulnerable mix on which Iago goes to work.

Simon Russell Beale gives one of performances of the year. His Iago is loathesome, cunning and physically discom- forted. Hatred and contempt look as if they are straining to burst out of his lumpy military jacket in the same way his legs bulge out of his shapeless trousers. A frog- like figure with a shaved head (and sinister crease of flesh at the base of his neck), he has a tight venomous voice which plays on his victims with prosaic insouciance. As he mentions his wife's alleged affair with Othello, his chubby hand knocks an in-tray flying across the room. He squeezes into a chair and thinks how best to get his revenge. "How? How?" he asks, as if searching for a clue in a crossword. He gets an idea ("it is engendered"), picks up a newspaper and switches on the radio. It's bravura stuff.

Russell Beale can be manically boisterous. In another electric scene, he discovers the beakily plaintive Cassio (an excellent Colin Tierney) sitting alone with a Penguin classic and half a glass of wine. Over the next few minutes, Iago manages to get him rip-roaringly drunk, as he swings his arm out with ferocious glee towards Cassio and forces him to down vodka after vodka. Russell Beale can also be marvellously non-committal: he shifts papers in and out of folders while, with equal dexterity, he maliciously excites the fears in Othello's mind. This daredevil performance would stray into melodrama if Russell Beale's mind wasn't so acute and preoccupied. He can stab Roderigo - tut-tutting, as he does so - with the same business-like air with which he stamps out a cigarette. Hitchcock would have given this dangerous creep more scenes with the heroine.

As Desdemona, Claire Skinner brings a fragile elegance which is every bit as exquisite as Cassio's description. An evanescent presence, Desdemona listens to the "Willow Song" on a gramophone while Iago's wife, Emilia (Maureen Beattie), a Scots housewife who would still love her husband to love her, brushes Skinner's hair. It's a powerfully ominous prelude to the final scene. Here, Skinner pleads and battles with Harewood. The only problem with the shift in period - which works when it touches on themes of war and racism - comes with the end of the relationship. It has been a headstrong love affair. Wouldn't a modern woman - who has shown courage and independence - be more forthright, mocking and indignant when stating her innocence?

Anthony Ward's spare design - a tiled courtyard with a loggia at the back - uses subtle lighting, from an ornate lantern to the shadows cast by a whirring fan, to alter the atmosphere. Similarly Simon Baker's sound design shifts us from the ticking clock to cicadas, modern alarm bells and a scratchy `78 without obtruding. It's packed with well-judged nuances: Cassio silently refusing a drink in a scene before the drinking one; Iago clocking Othello's casually intimate hello to Emilia in Cyprus; Othello adopting the same position at the same louvred windows as Brabantio (the jealous husband replacing the jealous father). Best of all, the fatal handkerchief gets left on the tiles throughout the interval as if challenging one of us to pick it up and prevent a tragedy.

Enter the Guardsman, a new chamber musical, based on Molnar's The Guardsman, may be sponsored by the Really Useful Group (Lloyd Webber's company) but its main debt is to Stephen Sondheim. With book by Scott Wentworth, music by Craig Bohmler and lyrics by Marion Adler, Enter the Guardsman is a backstage plot about an actor husband who returns to the theatre disguised as a guardsman to see if he can seduce his wife. As a musical, it's brisk, witty, tuneful, neatly constructed and attractively performed. If only that were enough.

Nicky Henson is wryly debonair as the tweedy playwright with notebook in hand, Janie Dee is forcefully ambivalent as the actress facing temptation ("blame it on the spring/ have a little fling") and Alexander Hanson ("I did my best to do my worst") nicely confused as the husband and guardsman. Jeremy Sams's production pushes the charm when what we could do with is a bit more bite. Fatally, it lacks Sondheim's savage streak.

At the Old Vic, April de Angelis's Playhouse Creatures is a sharply written account of the moment in the 1640s when actresses were allowed to appear on the stage. The play sometimes has the truncated air of an illustrated slide show, but Lynne Parker's production boasts a hilarious Liz Smith as sibilant old crone Doll Common, splashing expletives around the stage, and an excellent Sheila Gish as Mrs Betterton - facing the prospect of declining popularity while teaching newcomers like Nell Gwyn (Jo McInnes) the right way to tilt the head ("despair at five past 12"). It isn't her deportment but Nell's racy jig that catches the king's eye. And the rest actually is history.

`Othello': Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 928 2055), in rep. `Enter the Guardsman': Donmar, WC2 (0171 369 1732). `Playhouse Creatures': Old Vic, SE1 (0171 928 7616).

Life and Style
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Melissa and Joan Rivers together at an NBC event in May 2014
peopleDaughter Melissa thanks fans for 'outpouring of support'
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
Fungi pose the biggest threat globally and in the UK, where they threaten the country’s wheat and potato harvests
environmentCrop pests are 'grave threat to global food security'
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash
tvSimon Cowell blasts BBC for breaking 'gentlemen's agreement' in scheduling war
peopleWrestling veteran drifting in and out of consciousness
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
footballAnd Liverpool are happy despite drawing European champions
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

    £30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

    KS2 Teacher Plymouth

    £21500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

    MI Analyst-Reporting-Bank-Edinburgh-£260/day

    £230 - £260 per day + competitive: Orgtel: MI Analyst-Reporting-Bank-Edinburgh...

    Cost Reporting-MI Packs-Edinburgh-Bank-£350/day

    £300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Cost Reporting Manager - MI Packs -...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone