Friday, 23 September 2011

Are you jealous? Othello at the Sheffield Crucible

We are all acquaintances of the “green-ey’d monster”. Either as its embodiment or its victim: usually both. What many may not realise is that Shakespeare created this epithet for jealousy in his great tragedy Othello. For jealousy is most definitely alive and rife in Cyprus, where the newly-wedded Othello, Moor of Venice, has been sent with his army to ward off the Turks. His ensign, the shit-stirring Iago, masterminds an intrinsic plan to destroy the Moor – whom he both envies and loathes – by spinning webs of lies, inciting men enamoured of Othello’s bride Desdemona to acts of violence, all culminating in Othello committing a final act of murder based on the fictitious infidelity of his wife.

Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre – ever a melting pot for both onstage and offstage talent – sees actor turned artistic director Daniel Evans lead a solid cast and creative team in this eagerly anticipated production of Othello.

Why Iago hates his general is contestable, depending on interpretation. Has the Moor banged Iago’s wife Emelia? Is Iago in love with Othello himself? Is he in love with Desdemona? Is he a psychopath? Is he all three? The room left for multiple interpretations gives the character an interesting depth, and the actor playing him a wonderful occasion to let his imagination run wild.
The happy couple... and green-ey'd onlooker

Said actor in this production is Sheffield-born Dominic West, who plays the machinating Iago to Clarke Peters’ Moor. The pair are back together and happier than ever, four years after filming for the TV show The Wire ended - in which they took on the roles of alcoholic upstart cop Jimmy McNulty and the unflappable, model furniture making Detective Lester Freamon, respectively.

It would be convenient and clever to say something about how much The Wire resembles Shakespeare. And it may be true. Indeed, Peter Aspden in the Financial Times Weekend magazine beat me to it. But such is the far-reaching nature of Shakespeare’s plays that even Eastenders can be said to be Shakespearean. The Bard gives us plots that so beautifully capture human nature and human behaviour that anyone can relate to what is in them. He writes about the very things that make us people: emotions, feelings, dilemmas, passion. Politics are used as backdrops. Historical eras can be interchanged as frequently as the actors assuming the roles. Try doing that with characters.

The centre of gravity in this production is held more by Iago – also the second largest part in any of Shakespeare’s plays – than by the character after whom the play is named. Dominic West gives a vigourous performance as the aggrieved, two-faced lieutenant, slipping in and out of apparent deference and servitude towards Othello and enraged hatred behind his back. It is fascinating to observe Iago in scenes where he assumes a background role.

West chose to perform in a Sheffield accent as this is one which he thought theatre-goers typically associate with honesty – a trait which Othello thinks his lieutenant possesses. Would audiences in London hold similar associations, or would the classical north-south divide ruin this positive prejudice? This southerner thought that any honesty conveyed by the accent was dispelled by ahis somewhat ruffian crew cut!

Clarke Peters’ versatility as an actor is very evident as he is transformed from the poised Lester Freamon of The Wire to the afro-sporting, epileptic Moor general in this production. His spirals into jealous fits of rage are awe-inspiring and redeem any doubt one may have had at the start of the show about his stage presence. While Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Othello in the Donmar’s 2009 production may have stolen Ewan Macgregor’s spotlight as Iago, Peters and West work brilliantly and symbiotically together.

The females of the play are represented as needy and annoying –uncomfortably true to life – and are treated abysmally by their men. However, the dastardly light cast on the play’s men as they receive their comeuppance at the end quells any feelings of feminist indignation at this depiction. Alexandra Gilbreath as Emelia is funny and feisty as Iago’s woman and brings a sparkle to each scene in which she is in. Another small yet eye-catching part was that of Bianca, played by Leigh MacDonald – Cassio’s apparently forsaken love.

Evans, the Crucible’s artistic director, has excelled in orchestrating and coordinating some sublime acting talent with beautiful design and staging input. The gorgeous Crucible auditorium is highly reminiscent of the National Theatre’s Olivier theatre and the large stage means that the actors are spaced rather far apart: a challenge for both performers and the audience if those performers do not project their voices effectively enough - as was complained of Peters by at least one member of the audience.

The expanse allowed for some riotous cavorting – including Dominic West taking his shirt off and the forced inebriation of tee-totaller Cassio (decently portrayed by Gwylim Lee) by Iago to get him to fight one of Desdemona’s many pursuers, Roderigo.  Towards the end of the play, when the intimate scenes between Desdemona and Emelia, and later Desdemona and Othello, take place, Lucy Carter’s luscious lighting and Morgen Large’s design come together to give the space a closeness which is utterly captivating. This is most notable during the scene where Desdemona is undressed by Emelia, in which we are also treated to brunette beauty Lily James’ enchanting singing voice. Alex Baranowski’s music punctuates scene changes and is remarkable in its own right. What a pity that it makes such a fleeting appearances.

During one of the scuffles between Iago and Othello, the latter’s wedding ring came flying off, tinkling to the floor and remained there for the rest of the show. Whether or not this was intentional, it was nicely symbolic of Othello’s preempted and subconscious rejection of Desdemona when he is misled into thinking she has been unfaithful to him.

Quotation of the night (of many worthy contenders!) is awarded for Cassio’s “O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!” which I think anyone partial to a tipple can attest to. Modern productions of Shakespeare make us realise how little humankind has altered. It is still all about beer, birds and brawls. 

Evans has managed to capture the plenitude of jokes that appear in the script -surely there hasn’t ever been so much laughter in a tragedy as there was on press night in Sheffield?- without detracting at all from the violence and evil of Iago’s scheming that bring about the ruinous end. Well worth the jaunt up north.

Othello runs until 15th October 2011 at the Sheffield Crucible.

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