Othello, Warwick Arts Centre, 31/01/09
This production was so keen to emphasise the racism of the play that, in some places, it lost sight of the rest of the text. Director Kathryn Hunter was sitting in front of me scribbling away for the whole performance, so perhaps it will pick up – I hope it just had teething problems. It certainly had problems.
Patrice Naiambana’s (Othello) accent was all over the place, the ensemble work was sloppy, and it was self-indulgently long despite some hefty cuts. Emilia’s wonderful speech denouncing men was cut so short that it lost all of its power, an odd decision given that Desdemona was not a fragile, subservient little thing. In fact, Natalia Tena in her RSC debut was fantastic, and held her own on a big, spare set despite her frail physique.
I liked the set, with its two movable arches that came together and moved apart to become a Venetian bridge, a balcony, barracks, ships. Although the manoeuvring could have done with more rehearsal as the stage hands were a distraction, it was visually very effective. Less effective were the smaller props, screens used to make walls, waves, doorways, which were reminiscent of an A-level drama production. The murder scene, and the billowing sheets and dream-sequence, also belonged in an school production rather than being worthy of the RSC. What could have been a very powerful image, the small figure of Desdemona in a sea of white sheets, was made rather silly by the decision to have the sheets billow and ripple.
Musically, the show was excellent, with a lovely mix of styles performed live on stage by a wonderful group of musicians. The mix of very specifically African music with English was interesting, and made the point about racial difference far more effectively than any of the more blatant, visual ideas. The soldiers’ barracks on Cyprus hosts a black-and-white minstrels type cabaret, complete with golliwog and grotesque white doll used to represent Desdemona. However, the obvious respect that the soldiers have for their commander was at odds with the blatant disrespect shown to him in private, and Hunter did not explore this duplicity further. This brought the idea of race right to the forefront of the drama, and then rather than run with, Hunter just abandoned it, so that it obscured rather than revealing.
Michael Gould’s Iago has been praised elsewhere, but I thought him pantomimic. The way he leered and plotted, it was unbelievable that Othello and others could continue to call him “honest Iago”. For the deceit to work, the actor must convey two sides to the character’s personality, and it should have been clear to everyone that Iago was hell-bent on destroying Othello. That said, Naiambana’s Othello was strong on nobility and militarism, weak on emotion. While his love for Desdemona was well portrayed, the character was flat, and his fit was almost comically bad. Marcello Magni’s Roderigo was foolish and petulant, and although he hammed it up rather too much for my taste, he got a lot of laughs, and provided a nice contrast to Gould’s alternately dour and camp Iago.
For such a fine actor, Hunter has made some odd decisions and failed to bring the best out of her performers. Bring on Lenny Henry in April.