Moor #224; la mode

13th November 1998 at 00:00
New Victoria, Newcastle-under-Lyme

New Vic artistic director Gwenda Hughes says Othello is "a very modern play" that perfectly suits this production's 20th-century setting.She cites the issue of race: the shock of the mixed marriage and its associated pressures and tensions, and the idea, unquestioned in 16th-century England, of equating black with evil, which Shakespeare turned on its head with Iago.

The play also mirrors current thinking about relationships between the sexes, says Hughes. In Bianca, she sees an example of how women in a garrison town are often treated as whores.

Hughes's production resists the temptation to make costumes and props up to the minute. "No one has Walkmans or mobile phones. It's more just a general sense of being in the 20th century," she says, "with the set having a sort of bombed-out look, reminiscent of images of such places as Beirut."

The characters, too, have modern counterparts. "Desdemona (Lucy Briers) is no 'green girl'," says Hughes. "She's been sheltered but in a particular, upper-class way - cloistered among the rich and powerful, hostess of her father's house, used to entertaining a leading politician's guests."

In Iago (Tom Watt), Hughes says Shakespeare shows timeless, psychological insight, "giving us a portrait of a psychopathic personality long before such a word was coined. He takes pleasure in his power to control Othello (Ewen Cummins). He does it because he can, and he has no empathy with his victims.

"But the most strikingly modern feature of this play," says Hughes, "is its unresolved ending. It breaks all the rules of classic tragedy - there is no catharsis, no sense of purging and order restored. The wrong people are dead and Iago lives on. His, 'I bleed, sir: but not killed' leaves a disquieting feeling - a truly modern ending."

'Othello' runs at the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme, until Nov 28. Schools matinees November 18 and 25. Box office: 01782 717962.l The theatre has recently appointed an education officer, Dawn Ingleston, to work closely with schools and colleges. Tel: 01782 717954, ext 356

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