Thursday, August 15, 2013

Review: (Stratford) Othello

Graham Abbey (l), Dion Johnstone (photo by Michael Cooper)
Heavy Act With Heavy Heart
Stratford’s Othello brims with intensity and passion
by Stuart Munro

There’s a certain amount of excitement involved in seeing a well-known play for the first time. I’ve been vaguely familiar with the plot of Othello for years now, but had never had the opportunity to actually see it until last night’s opening at Stratford’s Avon Theatre. I couldn’t have picked a better production. This Othello is intense and heart breaking, and is sure to become a hit of the season.

Othello is the story of a Moorish Venetian army general and his beautiful new wife, Desdemona. Othello’s ensign, Iago, enraged at being passed over for a promotion, plots to bring down his commander by planting the seed of an idea of an infidelity involving Desdemona and Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant, in Othello’s head. The result is disastrous for all involved.

the chemistry and tension between the two on stage rippled through the audience

Leading this strong company are Dion Johnstone as Othello and Graham Abbey as Iago. Johnstone is compelling and sincere, every bit the army commander who has the loyalty and love of his troops, and equally comfortable in the tender moments with his new wife. As the play progresses and Othello’s world begins to crumble thanks to Iago’s scheming, Johnstone’s descent into near madness is carefully crafted, showing the audience each step along the way. As Iago, Graham Abbey is anything but the moustache-twirling villain the character could so easily become. Rather, Abbey presents a nuanced human being, verging on the sociopathic, whose determination is both startling and compelling. When these two men come together towards the end of the first half, as Iago first suggests to Othello that Desdemona may not be true to her husband, the chemistry and tension between the two on stage rippled through the audience, and I found myself thinking I’d be content to simply watch these two men interact all evening.

Equally as powerful is Deborah Hay as Emilia, Desdemona’s maidservant. Though her part is smaller (especially in the first half), her ferocity at the play’s climax heightened the tension to the bursting point and cemented her position as an indispensible member of the Stratford company. In fact, the entire company shines in this production. Only Bethany Jillard as Desdemona is out of place – as usual (and only partly because the part is written that way) she seems to stumble along, uncomfortable with her text and unsure of how to use her breath. I almost never believe a word she says.

Steering this production along its path to success is director Chris Abraham. Despite a rocky start (everyone was shouting for what seemed like an age), the production flowed from scene to scene. The entire play, though most especially the final scene, was beautifully staged, and Abraham’s pacing kept the tension high, aided by Thomas Ryder Payne’s eerie and driving soundscape. Julie Fox’s set design is a marvel – with two giant, moveable walls, and a large rotating central square, both bathed in red, the action seamlessly moves from locale to locale. Along with Michael Walton’s moody and precise lighting, this is one of the most impressive designs I’ve seen in a long time – a marvel of simplicity and imagination.

From the performances to the design to the direction, this Othello is a triumph in every way. I may have waited thirty-two years to see the play, but it was well worth it.

Othello continues to October 19

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