Othello @ Hackney Empire, London

cast list
Patrice Naiambana, Natalia Tena, Michael Goud, Hannes Flaschberger, Tamsin Griffin, Alex Hassell, Clive Mendus, Flora Nicholson, Osi Okerafor, Glyn Pritchard, Caleb Rowe, Robert Vernon, Cath Whitefield, Matthew Wilson, Miltos Yerolemou

directed by
Kathryn Hunter
Kathryn Hunter’s energetic production of Othello for the RSC features Patrice Naiambana as the eponymous general reduced from renown to an insanity of jealousy by little more than a mislaid handkerchief.

It’s a lengthy but often involving experience, which though unabashed by the demands of a plot plumbing almost every conceivable depth of human experience – murder, racism, adultery – at times lacks the seriousness necessary to wholly persuade the audience.

Naiambana gives a splendid performance, if sometimes too self-consciously sonorous. Superbly sexy, deep-chested and grave, at ease as much on the dance-floor as at the prow of a naval ship, it’s easy to see how young Desdemona fell for his tall tales.
If he appeared at times to have wondered in from an altogether more superior production it’s the fault of neither cast nor director: Michael Gould, who’d played Iago in Stratford, had been taken ill and was replaced by Alex Hassell. This far younger actor would have made an excellent Cassio (the role for which he was intended), and was warmly applauded for having stepped in magnificently at the last minute, but he lacked the chops for this role of singular malevolence. In order to believe that Othello could sink so miserably low Iago must be not only wicked, but also as cleverly persuasive as the serpent in the garden.

This Iago put me strongly in mind of an accountant’s son bullied at boarding school and now intent on taking it out on others. “I hate the Moor”, he remarked, with less venom than I’ve been known to direct at a misplaced apostrophe. To carp at what was a brave performance would be unfair – but without that central prop the whole structure was weakened.

Natalie Tena as Desdemona is elegantly charming, and though perhaps not evoking the depth of pity for which I’d packed the tissues was not the irritant this too-perfect female can sometimes seem. There was adroit comic relief in the form of Cath Whitfield as Bianca, and Tamzin Griffin successfully conveyed Emilia’s horrified defiance of her husband. Stepping in for Alex Hassell as Cassio, Robert Vernon coped well, lending the handsome dupe as much naivete as charm.

Hunter’s innovativeness as director is rightly applauded. There is expert choreography evident in almost every scene, with as much care taken over the precise placing of cast and scenery as in the delivery of each line. Rarely has music been so enjoyably yet so unobtrusively used in a Shakespeare production, and the 50s setting is well-chosen, lending veracity to the unpleasantness of the racism. And yet it is, I think, this very quality of attentiveness to the staging that proves this production’s flaw: in the end, it slows down even this most headlong and sensational of tales. The latter half in particular suffers from near-fatal longueurs: I was appalled to find myself so disengaged from a play that once reduced me to tears on the Tube that I was mentally urging Othello to get on with the strangling business.

Nonetheless, this production has tremendous vitality and a compelling lead. Any failings were forgotten when the finest lines were finely declaimed, and I was relieved to find that at ‘It is the cause! It is the cause!’ the hairs on the back of my neck stood up every bit as pricklingly as they ought.

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