Othello: Cheek by Jowl

othello‘Othello’ by William Shakespeare: Cheek by Jowl

Riverside Studios, November, 2004

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe.’  
(1.1.9)

The basic plot of the tragedy  of ‘Othello’is well-known: Iago (Jonny Phillips), jealous that he’s been passed over for military promotion in favour of Michael Cassio (Ryan Kiggell), plots revenge against his general, Othello (Nonso Anozie). From beginning to end we have a sense of entrapment.

Declan Donnellan’s modern-dress production, staged with the audience seated on either side of an acting area that runs the whole impressive width of the Riverside auditorium Nick Ormerod’s design is virtually non-existent, consisting of nothing more than five wooden ammunition boxes. The audience is forced into an aural landscape of Shakespeare’s language – the clues to character and situation that any reader or actor needs. The clues are not necessarily in the meanings of the words. We are drawn into the rhythms of the language: the patterns and sounds of the words that contain a great deal of valuable information.

Jonny Phillips’ Iago needed more cryptic discomfort than a sleaze-like re-working of Dickens’ Uriah Heap. In contrast, Jaye Griffiths projects a convincing portrayal of his warm-hearted, mistreated wife Bianca. It’s the first time that I have appreciated the subtlety of her character. Emilia is set in dramatic contrast to the good and virtuous Desdemona. Griffiths conveys her lines shrewdly highlighting her cynicism about life and the fickle quality of mankind.

Centrally, It is one of the most touching, tragic account of the marriage between Othello and Desdemona, I have ever seen.

Nonso Anozie’s Moor is both a dignified giant of a man and yet, he has a deep-seated naivety and inexperience in the ways of the world. He is slow to rouse, terrifying when he cracks. He is a gentle giant to Caroline Martin’s tiny, pitifully vulnerable Desdemona, who stands on tiptoes to kiss him, and horrifying when he strangles her, lifting her  mannequin-like above his head whilst her legs thrash against his waist. I had visions of Goya’s horrific painting Saturn Devouring His Son.

The final scene is particularly powerful in the rawness of its emotion.  Anozie’s tragic suicide speech is histrionic but the powerful vocal delivery is a reminder that it was common in Shakespeare’s day to refer to one’s soul as his “eternal jewel” as in Macbeth. The “pearl” in this speech could mean Othello’s soul. Thus Othello, like Judas, not only murdered his beloved, but also lost his own soul.

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Cheek By Jowl

Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod met at Cambridge University in the mid-1970s. Subsequently they worked together on various productions on the London Fringe, at the Arts Educational Drama School, and for the Young Activists at the Royal Court.

In 1981 they formed Cheek by Jowl. The company’s manifesto was to re-examine classical texts, avoiding directorial and design concepts, and to focus on the actor’s art. Its first production to tour was Wycherley’s The Country Wife presented at the Edinburgh Festival and supported by a small Arts Council grant. Cheek by Jowl returns after a break in Moscow’s Maly Drama Theatre and the Bolshoi.