Othello

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Oxford Playhouse and touring
(2009)

Production photo

Henry may have got a hooray for his performance in the Northern Broadsides production of Othello, but reviewers proved less kind about the rival RSC outing, also currently touring the regions. Part of the reason for the less than enthusiastic reception was an original running time of three-and-a-half hours.

So I was happy to find less of this Moor at Oxford where sell-out audiences enjoyed a production which came in 20 minutes sooner. Much of the blame for the drawn-out nature of proceedings has been lain at the door of director Kathryn Hunter who added a lot of extra business and even some dialogue.

There are some fine things in Hunter's production which is at its best in the quieter scenes, like that between Iago and Cassio, following the latter's disgrace. As he soothes and advises on the best way for him to regain his command, Iago (Michael Gould) buttons Cassio's tunic and combs his hair.

He is every inch the hail-fellow-well-met, entirely plausible man. He is less convincing as a monster - one thinks of the sheer psychotic fury summoned by Andy Serkis in the 2002 production at Manchester's Royal Exchange. Also intermittently impressive is Patrice Naiambana, much-praised for his work in the recent RSC's Histories cycle, in the title role. His dress and speech - he is clearly an African - as much as his colour mark him out as 'other' in the play.

There is an arresting opening in which Othello sings to Desdemona a snatch of a Persian song which she answers in Italian, part of the additional business mentioned earlier. He is a man proud of his success more given to smiles and laughter than any other Othello I've seen. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to swallow his lines as the action unfolds, a tendency shared by other members of the cast. Ironically for a staging with such a long running time, its cast often seem to be in too much of a hurry, to the detriment of the play's poetic riches.

There is good work by Alex Hassell as Cassio and strong support from Tamzin Griffin as Iago's long-suffering wife, here frequently to be found with a drink in her hand. Bizarrely, Hannes Flaschberger as Brabantio affects an Italian accent - Marcello Magni (Roderigo) is at least Italian, while Cath Whitfield as Bianca tries out 'sarf' London. Unfortunately these aren't the worst lapses of taste in this curate's egg of a production. I was minded of Clive James' observation of Jonathan Miller that he just has too many ideas.

I counted more than half a dozen interpolations of extra lines, the worst of which is an "oh f**k" by Roderigo. Quite why Hunter feels the lines written by Shakespeare aren't sufficient I'm not clear. I was irritated too by the repeated moving by members of the cast of two halves of a bridge throughout the play. On occasion, when they form the prows of ships pulling into Cyprus after the storm they justify their presence. Too often though they are just distracting.

But worse by far is the decision by Hunter to add a dream sequence, signified by a billowing sheet, in which Desdemona's father appears and performs a duet of the 'Willow Song' with her, to the accompaniment of some treacly muzak. Poor judgement robs the play of one of the most affecting scenes.

The addition of two numbers by an entertainer grotesquely made up as a minstrel complete with blacked-up face in the army camp has merit though I was disturbed by how many members of the audience found them humorous. A frustrating production then which would have been immeasurably stronger than it is had Hunter trusted Shakespeare far more and her own ideas less.

Howard Loxton reviewed this production at Hackney Empire and Peter Lathan at Northern Stage

Reviewer: Pete Wood