Royal Shakespeare Company by arrangement with Thelma Holt and Horipro Inc
The first production in the larger of the new Trafalgar Studios is an unquestionable triumph. The theatre, which is better known to most as the Whitehall, home to the Brian Rix farce, did well to select the RSC's Othello, already a success at the Swan in Stratford. Ironically, it even pays homage to the theatre's roots as Cassio gets caught with his trousers around his ankles.
Sir Antony Sher is evil embodied as Ensign Iago, a man who delights in mischief for its own sake. He is motivated by lust for his Moorish General's wife and greed for wealth and power. There is also a very healthy dose of schadenfreude.
Opposite him is another South African actor, the deep-voiced, upright Sello Maake ka-Ncube. He makes much of Othello's roots, combining a true nobility with a suspicious nature. This is engendered by the misdeeds of "honest Iago" and a life threatened by the racism that bubbles just beneath the surface. His is an unusual performance, bringing a taste of Africa to the part in accent and movement, never more so than in the murder scene, when he wears tribal dress.
The love between Othello and Lisa Dillon as Desdemona seems free and natural. When his mind is poisoned, possibly literally, the insecure Moor's jealousy emerges and will not be suppressed by reason. Miss Dillon's bemused distress, as Desdemona seems very modern and natural, right to the moment of her death, seen through gauze in a beautiful tableau, courtesy of designer Stephen Brimson Lewis.
There are many memorable scenes in Gregory Doran's insightful production, set in the 1940s. One image that stands out is of Iago as ringmaster, forcing Othello's show pony to believe the unbelievable, much against his will. To change the metaphor, Iago appears to be winding up a clockwork soldier until the spring breaks.
As a contrast to Iago's nature, his wife Emilia (Amanda Harris) has unusual power, particularly when she realises what damage her innocent discovery of a strawberry-covered handkerchief has wrought.
There is also a witty performance from Mark Lockyer as the wimpy Roderigo, another of Desdemona's suitors, and, along with Justin Avoth's unwitting Cassio, Iago's principal weapon in his war on the Moor.
This, though, is primarily Sir Antony's night. His technique is impressive as the red-faced, angry Iago calmly advances his cause to the detriment of all around. In underplaying the part, never raising his voice, he seems even more sinister than is usually the case.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher