Otello - Shakespeare - Ray Fearon - Richard McCabe - Zoe Waites
Royal Shakespeare Company - Barbican Theatre

In April 2000 I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company in the play Othello at the Barbican. The story is as follows: Othello, a General employed by the Venetian state, has secretly married Desdemona, daughter of the Venetian senator Brabantio. Iango, an ensign nursing a private grudhe against Othello, sets about revenging himself. He and Roderigo, a disappointed suitor of Desdemona, bring Brabantio to the Senate where, learning that she has married Othello of her own accord, he disowns his daughter.

Othello is immediately ordered to the Venetian colony of Cypus to repeal a threatened Turkish invasion. Desdemona sails with her husband, taking with them her companion Emilia, who is also Iago’s wife, and Othello’s Lieutenant Michael Cassio, newly-promoted over Iago’s head.
Once in Cyprus, Iago plants the suspicion in Othello’s mind that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio. He engineers a drunken brawl for which Cassio is blamed and dismissed by Othello.

Desdemona interceded on Cassio’s behalf but her constant pleas to Othello for his reinstatement only serve to convince Othello that Cassio is her lover. Iago acquires a treasured handkerchief from Desdemona and uses it as ‘proof’ of the affair. Increasingly maddened by jealously Othello orders Iago to kill Cassio and strangles Desdemona himself. Emilia discloses her husband’s plot and Othello, tormented by grief and remorse, kills himself. Iago, after murdering his own wife, is left to the justice of the Venetian State.

Michael Attenborough, the director of the RSC’s gripping production of Othello has decided to place the action in Edwardian times. But his gamble pays off as the parallels between Venetian sea-power and that of the British Empire are striking – and Cyprus, where the play is set, was, indeed, a British colony.

The shock that Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, feels when his daughter elopes with Othello fits in well with this and it is a tribute to Richard Cordery that he makes such a thankless task so memorable. When real tears course down his cheeks, he projects a sense of loss that the audience can identify with, immediately after they have been repelled by his vicious attack on a man who has clearly “done the state a service “.

Shakespeare based his play Othello on an Italian morality tale carrying the message that girls who disobey their fathers go on to meet a bad end. And this is the first production for a long time where one realises that it is Brabantio, not Iago, who is the first to plant a tiny seed of doubt in Othello’s mind when he says: “Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see. She has deceived her father, and may thee.”

Desdemona’s love does indeed doom her, to a death whose brutality is made all the more shocking by its contrast between the earlier love scenes and the charm of the Edwardian sets and costumes by designer Robert Jones.

As Desdemona, Zoe Waites more than makes up for the lack of the conventional blonde good looks with a combination of girlish eagerness and sexuality, tempered by good breeding and an innate decency.

Playing Othello, Ray Fearon’s chief triumph is to push the fact of his character’s race to one side – an extraordinary achievement – present him not as the Moor but as a man. Young, attractive, and radiating an unparalleled blend of sexual energy, intelligence and good humour – and a terrifying rage – he is one of the most exciting actors on the London stage and is clearly a future star.

In this production, however, he shares the acting credits with Richard McCabe, who plays Iago as a NCO (non-commissioned officer) who is more intelligent than many of the officer class. Iago’s resentment of this class, personified by Cassio (Henry Ian Cusick, is made all the more bitter by Othello’s refusal to promote him. While his belief that the Moor has slept with his wife (Rachel Joyce, making the most of the part) is the cause of his campaign to persuade Othello that Desdemona, too, is unfaithful.

It has often been said that this play could as easily be called “Iago“, a case that Richard McCabe makes with his menacing, chilling, yet curiously sympathetic, playing of the character. He richly deserves his joint curtain call with Ray Fearon

A domestic tragedy set against a romantic Mediterranean background. The depths to which Othello’s jealously drives him are unparralled in their dramatic intensity. Ray Pearson is the first black actor to play Shakespeare’s Moor on the RSC’s main stages for 40 years. The anguish he brings to the role belies his relative youth. Zoe Waites plays his Desdemona. Director Michael Attenburgh first paired these two in “Romeo & Juliet “and they are just as sizzling this time around. As well as his relationship with Desdemona, the play emphasises his tortured relationship with Iago. Richard McCable seethes with envy of the swaggering warrior.

One of the greatest exponents of the leading role in Othello was the bass Paul Robeson (1898-1976) who was originally a lawyer, barrister and actor, but finally a singer, renowned for his rendition of Negro spituals. He might have remained a barrister if he had not met such racial prejudice. He had no less then three major runs as the Moor (Othello). He firstly played the role at the Savoy Theatre in 1930 opposite Peggy Ashcroft.

In 1943 he again played the role in New York with Uta Hagen as Desdemona and Jose Ferrer as Iago (a run of 296 performances, reputed to be one of the longest recorded runs of any Shakespearean production). Finally, in Stratford in 1959, he played opposite Mary Ure with Sam Wanamaker as Iago.

As regards other characters in this present production Roderigo was played by Aidan McArdle, Emilia by Rachel Joyce and Cassio by Henry Ian Cusick.

NB: there is currently an exhibition about Paul Robeson at London’s Theatre Museum, Russell Street, Covent Garden, entitled Let Paul Robeson Sing which runs until September 2002.

The first night audience gave them a tremendous ovation and, if the rest of the RSC’s season is as good as this then 2000 will be a vintage year at the Barbican.


Verinha Ottoni.


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