Othello

William Shakespeare
Swan, Stratford
(2004)

Sello Maake Ka Ncube as Othello

There was a time when seeing an RSC performance at the Swan was like taking part in Who Wants To Be a Millionaire: sometimes you'd walk off with a major prize, occasionally you'd be disappointed with the options presented to you.

But since Michael Boyd became artistic director at Stratford and restored some of the RSC's core values, a trip to the Swan is like going on Millionaire with a huge number of lifelines - you know you're going to be delighted with the outcome.

First of all there was the winning performance of Judi Dench in All's Well That Ends Well before it transferred to the West End; now there's the bonus of Antony Sher in Othello.

It's the first time that Shakespeare's tale of jealousy and misplaced loyalty has been staged in the Swan. Normally Othello would be performed in the larger, more impersonal main theatre. In the Swan the play comes over as a rich tapesty of emotion, passion and confrontation.

Sher is magnificent. He's one of the finest actors treading the boards in this country and he makes the lines sound fresh and vibrant. He is so comfortable in the part of the scheming, contemptible Iago that it could have been written for him. You almost want him to succeed and it's only when the full extent of his barbarity is disclosed at the end that you accept just how evil he is.

Just as Judi Dench is the star of All's Well without overshadowing the rest of the cast, Sher is arguably the definitive Iago without towering above everyone else in Othello. In fact his presence appears to urge his fellow actors on to better themselves rather than being intimidated by the great man.

Any production of Othello needs strong performances from both Iago and Othello if it's to succeed. Sello Maake ka Ncube is making his debut with the RSC as the Moor and last worked with Sher nine years ago in Titus Andronicus in Johannesburg. The South African speaks beautifully and really immerses himself in the role, demonstrating that Othello's epilepsy was undoubtedly the reason for his irrational behaviour.

There is also delightful chemistry between Othello and Desdemona, exquisitely portrayed by Lisa Dillon. She recently picked up the most promising newcomer accolade in the Critics' Circle Awards; her potential is there for all to see.

The whole production is pulled together by Gregory Doran who can simply do nothing wrong at the moment. This is his fourth incontrovertible success in a row after last year's sensational The Taming of the Shrew, The Tamer Tamed and All's Well.

He gets superb performances from the whole company, especially from Mark Lockyer. His Roderigo is almost a simpleton who can't control his emotions and sheds tears when he is unable to show Desdemona how much he loves her.

Justin Avoth is excellent too as Cassio, again very demonstrative and intense. He becomes distraught at his conduct after one of the funniest scenes in the play when Iago and other soldiers contrive to get him drunk which leads to Othello stripping Cassio of his lieutenancy.

And Amanda Harris gives a sparkling performance, making the most of the role of Emilia and standing up to both her husband Iago and the Moor.

Othello is a triumph for Sher, Doran and the whole company. You'll come out of the Swan feeling as though you got all 15 questions right on Millionaire.

"Othello" runs until April 3rd

This production has also been reviewed by Pete Wood.

Reviewer: Steve Orme