William Shakespeare
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Production photo

Andrew Hilton's current production at the Tobacco Factory is a seductive "celebration of sex", and a compelling study in "the mayhem it wreaks". The production is lit from within by the consuming passion between Leo Wringer's Othello and Saskia Portway's Desdemona: none of the stylised, castrated love so often resorted to in lesser productions. These two have a grounded and playful relationship: Wringer delights in a languid, North African pronunciation of his wife's name, just as Desdemona later mimics his accent in her speech. In fact, Hilton has the whole cast work with this easy naturalism, whilst never detracting from the rhythm of the text, with the result that the production is utterly engaging. The moments of dramatic irony, (Othello's, "honest Iago", for example), elicit a collective groan from the audience and you feel everyone squirm as one, at the palpable tension of the final act.

Wringer is a spectacular Othello. From the moment of his first entrance, he draws all eyes. He exudes that dignity that comes with self-reliance and a clear conscience. His Othello is a consummate story teller. In his lilting North African delivery, the natural rhythms of Shakespeare's text are brought alive. Wringer captivates the audience as much as he captivates Desdemona, with his animated speech and his sensual physicality. As he grows more and more unhinged, his torment is played out in an exotic, unguarded and fluid physicality that stands in increasing contrast to the straight-backed rigid Edwardian Englishness of those around him. His body language tells us all the subtext we need: as he skips off to bed his wife for the first time; as he twitches and convulses with the growing agony of his jealousy.

Saskia Portway is just as triumphant as Desdemona. The extended bliss, followed by the protracted angst of this part, is always a challenge, but Portway's easy and sympathetic naturalism make light of this. That she is revelling in her marriage in the first half is clear; just as her final heartbreak moves to tears. No emotion is here skin deep: Portway lives every moment. There is an ease and grace to her delivery, which makes for an absorbing portrayal of a love affair and she creates a far more devastating portrayal of her rejection than might otherwise be achieved by a more traditional, two-dimensional characterisation.

Her scene with Lucy Black's Emilia as they prepare Desdemona for what is to be her death bed is a memorable one. As Emilia helps unbutton her mistress, the history between these two and the strength of their friendship is clear. Lucy Black does well as a devoted servant and a burdened wife to Iago (Chris Donnelly): her fear of him is made increasingly evident in a series of subtle and underplayed exchanges, with Iago hissing lines for her ears only as Emilia flinches and breaks off eye contact. That she has long been victim of her husband's dark side is evident, and Lucy Black does justice to Emilia's courage in a moving final scene.

In the context of this naturalistic production, Donnelly's Iago has none of that overly-sinister melodrama that can make for a clogged and heavy-handed villain. In fact, his soliloquies play up the comic, bare-faced cheek of Iago's outrageous plottings and connivings. He even succeeds in winning the audience's sympathy to a degree: everyone loves a loveable rogue. It is only when he gives us glimpses of his mistreatment of his wife that we begin to see his rotten inner core emerge. In this way the tension and suspense is heightened.

This is a cast without weak link; Byron Mondahl's bumbling Roderigo, Paul Nicholson's care-worn Brabantio and Philip Buck's Cassio all particularly worthy of mention. A memorable production, deserving of the (partial) standing ovation and rumbling of stamping feet of press night.

"Othello" runs at the Tobacco Factory until 17th March, 2007

Reviewer: Allison Vale

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