The Critics: Black and white and noir all over

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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).