Review – Othello, Sheffield Crucible

A guest blog (guest blog!) from habitual fashion blogger and sometime theatre fan Milly Wardrobe:

Before we go any further, I have to confess I’m Northern. That means proper Northern, as in, from Yorkshire. (For those of you that don’t know, it’s past Watford). Despite spending my youth skipping amongst the moors and the shopping malls of Leeds, I never managed to make it to Sheffield, not once in all my twenty something years and I admit I was prejudiced about it. I know about Sheffield from The Full Monty, the fact that it produces steel and that it has dark sooty towers at the edge of the M1.

Well, it also has the Crucible Theatre and it is well worth a visit.  I can’t believe it has taken me this long. (I would also advise you to get the train so you can see the lovely water feature by the station, which we greatly admired despite running late and then quite literally running up a steep hill to make it in time.)

Othello has always been a corker in the Bard’s canon and Daniel Evans has pulled off a genuine casting coup for his production – a staging that forms the centrepiece of the Crucible’s 40th birthday celebrations.  For Dominic West and Clarke Peters, Sheffield is quite a schlep from the mean streets of Baltimore but you’d never know it.

Peters, quite simply, is the best Othello I have ever seen. At 59, he has the right stature and seniority but it is his subtly nuanced performance that proves so powerful. He exudes gravitas and largeness of soul – and this makes his gradual descent into jealous madness so believable. We see a man pushed over the edge who, as he falls, becomes someone else. His voice becomes breathy and faster, his movements become sharp instead of languid. I particularly admired the moment when he first sees Desdemona after the seeds of jealousy have been planted. There is a new coldness – slight but unmissable – in his face. On occasion, he had a tendency to rush the verse and could be slightly indistinct as he plays with an African accent but this did not lessen his performance and I’m not ashamed to say I was moved to tears at climax. Desdemona’s death – Othello strangles her with a long white curtain – is the most upsetting I have ever seen.

West breaks the mould of creeping, sinister Iagos of late with an ebullient, strapping brute who you could imagine leading the charge into battle and cracking jokes with in the pub afterwards. With his forthright approach and strong Sheffield tones, he brings out the humour of Shakespeare’s text that is so often overlooked. The choice of accent is inspired because it sounds so trustworthy. Noisy comedy is this Iago’s cover: it makes his undercurrent of cold manipulation all the more powerful, particularly in the Second Act when the impact of the devastation he has wrought becomes apparent. Even as someone who knew the play incredibly well, there were moments that chilled me, such as when he advises Othello not to poison Desdemona but to strangle her in her wedding sheets, as though it were just a helpful piece of advice about a small marital spat. Throughout you can see he has an angry edge, a chip on his shoulder and the hint that psychosis is not far away particularly in his scenes with Emilia where the cruelty in their marriage is starkly apparent. It is a terrific interpretation: original and convincing. At the end, Iago seems not an evil enigma which I have so often thought him but an inadequate with nothing to say who has already tried to make an undignified run for it. You are left feeling betrayed and bereft for ‘the Noble Moor.’

There is not a feeble performance anywhere in this production. Desdemona (whom I freely admit to often thinking of as a sap), in Lily James’ hands is a young and beautiful heroine who retains, throughout her ordeal, traces of the spark and mettle that led her to defy convention in the first place. She is perfectly partnered by Alexandra Gilbreath, whose Emilia has clearly been starved of every kind of affection in her marriage to Iago and whose bawdy comedy and sound common sense provide both light relief and moments of extraordinary tenderness. Gilbreath’s real strength comes in the final Act when, fuelled by loyalty to her dead mistress she floors the men around her by her potent rage and grief, giving a woman who has never truly had a voice, real depth and feeling.  Her death came as an almost equal blow.

Often overlooked characters were brought to the forefront by a combination of great direction and performances in particular Brodie Ross’s Roderigo – a hilarious wimp, blubbing into his hankie, insisting on repeated hugs from Iago and so pathetically funny that not only were the audience chuckling consistently for the first ten minutes but my companion (who was unfamiliar with the text) asked me if I was quite sure Othello was a tragedy.

Evans’ production goes to show that a ‘conventional’ production – in period dress, minimal line pruning, sparse set – need not be reverential to the point of dullness. It can be fresh, funny, violent and moving… even to someone who studied the heck out of it in sixth form. I just wish I’d been able to see it pre A-Levels.

Must see.

Bonus points for purists: Lodovico’s rarely used and now-unfortunate line on Othello’s suicide, “O, bloody period!” (in the sense of a violent full-stop to the chain of tragedy)

Bonus points for Wire fans: McNulty takes his shirt off after the interval. Yes indeed.