Sir Trevor Nunn's 1989 Othello for the RSC, filmed by the BBC the following year, is unusual for several reasons. It was staged at The Other Place in Stratford in front of an audience of little more than 100 people. Therefore this is an intimate production and on occasion, suffers because it can be difficult to hear some deliberately muttered speeches, particularly asides delivered straight to camera. Pump up the volume and this is solved.
This is a minor quibble in a production, judging by the costumes, set during the American Civil War, which makes this play into a domestic drama in which insecurity ensures that jealousy eventually wins out in its battle with love.
The key figure is inevitably Iago, memorably played by Sir Ian McKellen as a quiet, bluff man with a Lancastrian accent, who eschews all emotion, preferring to use quiet comments to demonstrate his often malign feelings.
From the opening scene, his jealousy of his General is all-consuming and combines paranoia about both the fidelity of his wife Emilia and his lack of career progression, laced with more than a touch of the racist hatred that is rife in the Venetian community.
Othello is a noble Moor in this portrayal by Willard White, a baritone whom one might much more naturally expect to see in Verdi's version of Shakespeare rather than the Bard's own. His speaking voice though, is amazing and it is a pleasure just to hear him declaim, almost regardless of what he is saying.
White's Othello is not so much a mountain of a man as a volcano, smouldering and bubbling before he can eventually no longer contain his ire, which explodes both memorably and dramatically. This is unusual casting and, on occasions, the outcast in whom trust seems reluctantly placed, moves in a fashion far more familiar at La Scala in Milan than Stratford.
His wife, and (five years later) the director's, is Imogen Stubbs playing a frail, fragile Desdemona who bounces around because she is so desperately in love with her husband. This works well, as her disbelief when he turns on her is entirely convincing.
Iago's has two main human weapons. The first, Sean Baker's Cassio, is an honest man used as a pawn. The other is the Venetian, Rodrigo who loves and would sacrifice all for Desdemona. Interestingly he is played by Michael Grandage in one of his last stage performances before becoming a director, now so successfully at the Donmar Warehouse.
The other unwitting assistant to the evil and anything but "honest" Iago is his wife. She is Desdemona's devoted servant and close friend but it is also Emilia who eventually causes her mistress's death by handing a pretty, strawberry-dotted handkerchief to her husband. Zoë Wanamaker rise to the occasion, particularly when she explodes with anger after discovering her own part in her husband's scheming.
This DVD also offers very good value for money, whether paired with The Merchant or alone. It lasts for close to three-and a-half hours and then is then repeated with a voice over commentary shared by the two theatrical knights and Lady Nunn.
The puff on the cover of the DVD stating that this is "as near to a perfect piece of television as you can get" may be a little hyperbolic but this is a high quality, small-scale production and it is easy to see why Sir Ian McKellen won two Best Actor awards for his performance as the quietly murderous servant who is completely without remorse following the last act bloodbath.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher