Set play

28th January 2000 at 00:00
OTHELLO. Royal Shakespeare Company. The Barbican.

Ray Fearon is the first black actor to attempt the part of Othello on the main RSC stages since Paul Robeson played it 40-odd years ago.

It is only two years since his acclaimed Romeo and, at 32, he is regarded as young for the part. Yet as soon as he enters, dressed in flowing robes which contrast with the buttoned-up severity of the military men around him, he exudes authority and otherness. This man is no fool, neither does he lack maturity among soldiers, but he is a stranger in Venice. And what this production makes amply clear is that he is unused to women. He is easy prey to Iago, the experienced married man, whose qualities as a soldier and mess-mate seem irreproachable.

Matching Ray Fearon's excellent sympathetic, glamorous but socially unconfident Moor is Richard McCabe's cunning Iago. Productions of Othello founder if the audience does not believe that anyone other than an innocent would immediately see through Iago's mach-inations. McCabe's apparent reasonableness, the "honesty" so often referred to and here credible to the uninitiated onlooker make his duping of Othello quite convincing.

And we are given clear psychological reasons for his behaviour. He is faced with a sexually potent superior, able to enchant a beautiful young woman and command respect and love from his peers and those in power. He, in contrast, is chubby, aware of his lower-class origins, disappointed in his career and rapped in a sour marriage. In solitude he spits out his words; when his plans seem to be working he can scarcely contain his glee. Othello's publicly expressed passion is visibly distasteful to him. It has never been clearer that there are two jealous men in this play.

Michael Attenborough's Edwardian-dress production emphasises the importance of the army away from home in Cyprus, the enclosed world of the camp, especially in an occupied country. The scene in which Cassio (Henry Ian Cusick) is led into drunkenness and so into Iago's clutches, has all the hallmarks of an out-of-control bunch of upper-class boys in the locker-room. Street brawls make it easy for Iago to slip in the knife and implicate the innocent. Robert Jones's design makes much of the publicprivate nature of a life spent under canvas.

While she looks ethereal in her gauzy gowns, Zo Waites' Desdemona is a self-confident young woman; there is nothing of the girlish victim about her. Fans of the Fearon-Waites Romeo and Juliet may be disappointed that there seems less of a spark between them this time, but her isolation when he withdraws his affection is complete.

The tragedy of Othello is given full weight, but there are moments of humour - Richard McCabe excels at the knowing glance and Roderigo (Aidan McArdle) looks like Inspector Clouseau. In the end, Othello reverts to the quality he most reveres - courage - and dies a soldier.

Heather Neill

Tickets: 0171 638 8891

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