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London Theatre Reviews

Zoe Tapper and Eamonn Walker/Ph: Johan Persson


By Michael Coveney

Shakespeare's Globe is a wonderful place to play Othello. The company makes use of every nook and cranny of the auditorium. The production is fluid, up close and audible.

Unexpectedly, Othello works as well as any of Shakespeare's plays I've seen in the Globe. Matching the outer action with inner domestic intensity was an Elizabethan theatre speciality: the great canopy suggests both senate house and bedroom, and by using the auditorium itself as the source of most entrances, Wilson Milam's terrific production keeps everything fluid, up close and audible.

Eamonn Walker is the first black actor to play the role at the Globe he's the first Othello there, full stop. Those of us marked for life by Laurence Olivier's performance at the Old Vic will balk at the casual delivery of the great speeches you can't just say "Farewell the tranquil mind," or "Wash me in steep down gulfs of liquid fire."

Walker, like most recent black Othellos, does not go the extra mile. I'm afraid we need to see [Michael] Gambon in the role (he once sketched it, tantalisingly, in a heavily cut Scarborough production by Alan Ayckbourn, with Claire Skinner as Desdemona). It might now be too late. But Walker is fine actor who executes a juddering epileptic fit while in the grip of Iago's spell and descends into madness as he murders his wife.

He is a convincing soldier and sways with enormous valour in his white African robes. "She loved me for the dangers I had passed" is an entirely plausible reason for Desdemona's infatuation. And Zoe Tapper, a bright and snappy new actress (she made her film debut in Richard Eyre's Stage Beauty), plays Desdemona straight down the middle as a lovely innocent.

Milam's casting of Emilia and Cassio's whore, Bianca, is similarly acute: Lorraine Burroughs and Zawe Ashton(a Royal Court Theatre Upstairs discovery earlier this year) are really outstanding also, both are dusky of complexion, defusing the racist awkwardness of Brabantio's (powerful Scottish actor John Stahl) objection to Othello's "sooty bosom." Desdemona sings the "Willow" song while Emilia unpins her dress and then launches into her great, unwittingly ironic speech about men and women in marriage. This scene is quite beautifully played.

The Globe was jam-packed at an early June Sunday matinee in the sun, and the attentiveness very high, as Milam and the cast pushed the play into every cranny of the theatre. And of course it all revolves around the manipulations of Iago, here played with uncomplicated malevolence by Tim McInnerny, still remembered as the foppish Lord Percy in Blackadder on television.

Now 51, McInnerny proves the best military sweat of a Iago (who has seen "six times seven years") in my experience, devoid of the sexual-psychotic complications of Ian McKellen or Simon Russell Beale, a man driven by professional disappointment to a series of appalling crimes of deception, almost as a way of keeping our interest, as well as his own. His voice is strong and richly textured, his timing on the throwaway jibes, and mock expressions of dismay, faultless throughout.

In the theatre, you never ask, "Why is Iago doing this, why is he so evil?" You are borne along, in a good production, by the acting and the fantastic control of the plot. So it is here. And unlike the Trevor Nunn RSC double bill of King Lear and The Seagull, there is no slip-up in the middle ranks. Nick Barber is a lively, fully-rounded Cassio and slight little Sam Crane a delightful Roderigo, gulled into losing his money ("I'll sell all my land!") in pursuit of a fantasy obsession with Desdemona and killed in a night-time brawl like a dog. A very good Othello for first-timer