Venetian Bind

Royal National Theatre's Othello shares Herberger bill with Princess Anne

The cast is a seamless ensemble. Uniform competence appears to be an area in which the Brits, whether we like to admit it, have us beat theatrically. There are no wooden spear carriers--you feel like the Second Senator or the Third Gentleman could be a perfectly capable leading man in a pinch. The company is dominated, however, by Simon Russell Beale's Iago.

Beale--he was the Second Gravedigger in Kenneth Branagh's film Hamlet, playing straight man to Billy Crystal--isn't the usual physical type associated with the role. Resembling a less-hefty Victor Buono, he's as imposing as David Harewood's Moor. Yet there's a wonderful compulsive tension to Beale's line readings and body language. It's as if he uses his martinet bearing as a reproach to having been passed over for a promotion.

Beyond that, he doesn't try to sell us any fancy psychology as to Iago's motivation--or, at least, you can't see him trying. Despite his variety of disproportionate grudges against Othello and Cassio, this Iago is, at bottom, just a bitter-hearted troublemaker, a man so outraged by imagined snubs that he makes himself the ultimate insider--he talks to us. Paradoxically, this common-sense approach to the role makes Iago both more believable and more disturbingly opaque than any labored Psych 101 "explanation."

Harewood seems, at first, a bit young and boyish for Othello--it's a surprise when he claims he's "declined into the vale of years"--and he pushes the musicality of his Jamaicanish accent a bit hard in his early, ebullient scenes. All the same, his handling of this awesomely difficult role is, overall, a marvel. He nails the part of the role that counts--the grief in the final scenes, and the belated awakening to dreadful sanity.

Claire Skinner is lovely as Desdemona, and she makes a noble effort at finding a modern, assertive side to the role. If she comes across less strongly than her male co-stars, it's probably because this idealized character suffers the most from the updating--when she's no longer a fairy-tale damsel, she loses her helplessness. No doubt naively, we can't help but feel that in a post-flapper setting, a woman a few days into a marriage that's going dangerously bad ought to have more options (Maureen Beattie's Scottish-accented Emilia seems, by comparison, every inch a 20th-century woman). All this aside, it seemed strange that in the curtain call, Skinner bowed with the company, and only Beale and Harewood bowed separately as principals.

A word should also be said for Trevor Peacock, who's in fine gruff voice as Desdemona's father Brabantio. I wondered if this character made a special connection with the premiere-night audience--a large percentage of that crowd somehow looked particularly able to empathize with a rich old guy outraged at his daughter's sneaking off to marry a studly black man.

This sort of accessibility is what makes Othello such a perennial (it was probably the first Shakespeare ever performed in America). It's not as grand or philosophical a play as the Bard's tragedies about kings and princes, but it's the most hot-blooded of the great tragedies, and probably the most heartbreaking. Macbeth, Lear and Hamlet take on our existential quandaries, and even Romeo and Juliet don't literally die so much as symbolically act out the defeat of our youthful innocence. But the sweaty domestic agonies of Othello are as real as any city's police blotter on any night. The other tragedies hit us where we think and feel, but Othello hits us where we live.

The play worked this dark magic yet again at the Herberger on premiere night, captivating the audience even after the act it had to follow. Well, most of the audience, anyway--at intermission, rumor had it that the poor jet-lagged Princess Royal was nodding off.

Upcoming UK/AZ Festival theater events:
Umabatha: The Zulu Macbeth, October 11, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts (994-2787).

Three Semi-Automatics Just for Fun, October 31 and November 1, at Arizona State University's Drama City, Tempe (965-6447).

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