None of Shakespeare’s plays is more fluent in a universal language than Othello, which speaks of love and attendant jealousy, race and attendant resentment, sheer evil and attendant destruction. Not for nothing has it inspired one of the world’s greatest operas and numerous other works in every medium. It features theater’s most notorious villain and the purest, sweetest of all tragic heroines.
As has been frequently noted, the play moves on two timetables: one that urges the action forward at breakneck speed, and one that would have to be much slower to give Desdemona a chance to seem unfaithful even to the most gullible fool. But the playwright’s artistry makes logic defer to poetry, drama, and the tragedy of human fallibility.
The Royal National Theatre’s Othello, staged by Sam Mendes, was designed as a touring production with a unit set. Yet imperative as it is to make the transition from Venice to Cyprus felt, this doesn’t happen here. The upper level, with its gigantic Venetian blinds, may be an homage to Venice, but in this updating to the 1930s there is nothing very Cypriot, except perhaps the British military uniforms.
In itself, the Anthony Ward setting is attractive: simple earth colors, a balcony behind which we once glimpse a stormy sky, a colorfully tiled courtyard floor. Ward’s women are tastefully costumed, although one wonders why Desdemona, once in Cyprus, always goes barefoot, save for a minute or so on the night of her demise. Is this meant to make her sexier? More girlish? More of an innocent victim? Or did she forget her shoes in Venice and not yet find a suitable Cyprus cobbler?
Paul Pyant’s lighting contributes all the atmosphere one could wish for. Paddy Cunneen’s music, so disastrous for Cheek by Jowl’s recent Much Ado, is much better here, concentrating on percussion suggestive of explosive emotions and the different – African – drummer the Moor may be marching to. But it is Mendes’s direction that, until the home stretch, is most impressive. Eliminated are the extras that usually clutter things up, and the action remains lean, mean, and, barring the odd rubato, fiercely forward-hurtling.
As is often the case, it is the Iago who steals the show. Simon Russell Beale, chubby and nondescript, seems about as common as the common man can get. But there is sheet lightning in his eyes, and his voice and manner segue from deferential to peremptory, from solicitous to cynical, from Shakespeare to Noël Coward. Mendes has given him some nice business with such things as a liquor bottle and a kiss from his wife that he endures with the utmost loathing. That he eventually kills with a pistol may feel anachronistic even in this setting, but otherwise this is a powerful Iago, both foxy and bulldoggy.
David Harewood is a believable enough Othello until the last act. He towers above the others, and he has excellent elocution and an appropriate soupçon of an outsider’s accent. If he seems a bit stolid throughout, that could be the military man’s unease in mufti; it certainly helps make his credulousness credible. But he cannot rise to the great tragic poetry of the conclusion; the suffering that should give him heroic dimensions merely brings out his mediocrity.
Desdemona is a notoriously difficult role: How does one make so much passive docility, so much unrebellious victimhood palatable to modern audiences? The extremely appealing Claire Skinner does it with a childlike freshness and winsomeness that works enchantingly till near the end; she, too, fails to grow into that ultimate terrible beauty. Mendes has not helped her here: Instead of letting her, as written, sing the Willow Song (the less professionally, the better), he has her listen to someone warbling it on one of her phonograph records, which is far less moving. And even the conjugal bed brought on for the murder fits poorly into the décor, especially as it replaces an earlier, rather incongruous divan.
Colin Tierney’s unheroic Cassio, Crispin Letts’s aging Roderigo, Trevor Peacock’s frantic Brabantio, and the rest are all good, as would be Maureen Beattie’s Emilia but for an unwarrantable Scottish accent. If this Othello were still at bam, I would urge you to see it.