Othello ***

Guy Hollands’ current production of Othello is a frustrating experience that has strong components that are almost completely undermined by weak links.

First, there’s the cast.  There are some truly remarkable performances here.  Billy Mack’s opening performance as Brabantio is a promise of great things to come, and Pauline Knowles takes Emilia, a character many productions sideline, and turns her into a riveting and memorable force.

But any production of Othello hinges on its three leads, and here things aren’t quite so smooth.  First, the role of Desdemona has been completely reinterpreted into a tomboy.  Actress Sarah Haworth actually does quite a good job, and her final scenes are ripe with emotion, but the tomboy concept makes for a less than convincing relationship with Othello.  Speaking of Othello, actor Jude Akuwudike certainly looks the part.  He carries himself as an intelligent military man prone to joy and jealousy and moves convincingly onstage.  However, on the press night he fumbled many of his lines and at times dropped focus from his character.  He might strengthen as the production runs more, but on the opening night his was a weak performance.

And then there is Andy Clark’s Iago.  Clark is a very good actor, and he has some fantastic moments in this production.  He makes a great villain and plays cunning well.  However, the character is known as ‘honest Iago’, and yet Clark’s more like ‘Jack-the-lad Iago’ in most of his scenes with other characters, and it doesn’t convince at all.

Even less convincing is the pacing of the production.  Though everything is well staged, there is a sluggish feeling to most of the performance that drags everything.  There is little dramatic urgency in most scenes, with characters appearing to be more intent on being heard than on doing anything.  It’s as if the directional focus is more on staging and less on story and character.

And yet, the production still works.  Othello is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and when the story and the characters come through it still manages to move.  If only Hollands spent more time on context and substance rather than concept and image, the production would stir the audience into the emotional frenzy that the play is capable of.  Instead, the audience is presented with a merely competent production that works but doesn’t electrify, and though it isn’t bad it makes one wonder why they should bother.

Playing at the Citizens until November 14.

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