First Night: Youth blunts the sharp pain of betrayal

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Royal Shakespeare Theatre


LIKE POLICEMEN, s seem to get younger and younger. In Michael Attenborough's extremely fresh and involving new main stage production, set in the early 20th century, the Moor of Venice is played by a bearded, shaven-headed Ray Fearon.

Fearon is an actor who only a couple of seasons back made a big impression with his charismatic Romeo. And therein lies the rub. The impact of the play is blunted if you level the age gap between and Desdemona (here a mettlesome Zoe Waites) to that between Romeo and Juliet.

Indeed, Attenborough has to cut the text to accommodate Fearon's conspicuous lack of maturity. When this hunts for reasons for his wife's supposed infidelity, he says: "Happily, 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.

Fearon's youth is against him here. Competence, watchable, but hollow and vocally monotonous, he never arouses the requisite embarrassment. At his most impressive when he is stripped to the waist, he fails to suggest a man struggling to cling to a grandiose self-image that, thanks to Iago, he has begun to suspect. When he confronts the Venetian grandees, you can believe neither that he has had a long exotic past nor that his slow and nerveless verse delivery ever managed to spellbind Desdemona.

The production is, none the less, well worth seeing. It has energy, tension, and inventive staging ideas. For example, the scene of Cassio's disastrous inebriation is presented as a very English regimental drinking contest at which Cassio takes violent objection when the snobby, loutish male high-jinx turn to mimed fellatio.

Above all, the production has Richard McCabe's splendid sinisterly comic Iago. It is as though this jowly, Brylcreamed figure can only prevent himself from knifing the rest of humanity by standing stiffly and permanently to attention and dispensing smug innuendoes. The production lays a trail of artfully placed clues that suggest one of the causes of this Iago's actions is sexual impotence.

But with Fearon's keening over his wife's corpse like a lachrymose little boy over his mother, I still look forward to a non-ageist .