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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


  Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati/ Ph: Keith Pattison

It’s a mightily obvious thing to say, but I think it merits reflection from time to time: Shakespeare isn’t writing any more plays. If they bore this in mind, theatres would stop squandering the non-renewable resources of the 38 dramas that he left us in mediocre, ill-thought-through productions and instead only mount these precious pieces when they had something new and vital to say. Thankfully, the Royal Shakespeare Company has adopted just such an approach in its current project to stage each play only once in a six-year cycle of the complete works, and this summer’s "Outsiders in Venice" mini-season is paying rich dividends.
Alternating in repertory with Iqbal Khan’s muscular modern-dress version of Othello is Polly Findlay’s outstanding rethink of The Merchant of Venice. Like Shylock, Othello (Hugh Quarshie) is used to his isolated status of "otherness." It has been brought on because of his skin colour, but here’s the big idea: This Iago (Lucian Msamati) is black too. Thus the old black-white divide is repointed in fruitful contemporary ways, and a whole new type of racial tension simmers when Othello selects Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) as his lieutenant over Iago. These undercurrents reach boiling point during the raucous nighttime knees-up in Cyprus, when the assembled military company starts beat-boxing to some sharply racially defined lyrics.
Quarshie, dignified and elegant, and Msamati, a punchy street fighter with a sideline in silky conniving, square up to each other marvellously over the five acts. It’s a compelling showdown for which we’re thrilled to have ringside seats. Once Iago has planted that cankering seed of jealousy, Quarshie is physically racked with the pain of doubt over his wife’s fidelity. The drawback to such an intense pairing, however, is that Desdemona (Joanna Vanderham, too harsh and strutting) is sidelined. Her death doesn’t have the full range of impact, as it’s really all about the men. Ayesha Dharker’s Emilia, however, provides memorably clear-eyed support and a strong moral through-line.
The RSC has, in the recent past, been known to skimp on design for the newly opened-out spaces of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but not here. Ciaran Bagnall’s elegant set of pillars and columns, arches and arcades, also boasts a little Venetian canal, on which Roderigo and Iago arrive at Brabantio’s house in the very first scene. The costumes and jewellery from Fotini Dimou are strikingly high-concept. Nadia Albina’s female Duke of Venice wears a magnificently pointy-shouldered gown when she and her staff gather for a strategy meeting before sending Othello off to deal with the Turkish force besieging Cyprus. Amusingly, they also take advantage of a Skype call with one of their advisers.
After this summer sojourn in sunny Venice, the RSC will return to the muddy English and French fields of Henry V. It is fervently to be hoped that these locations will similarly benefit from the fresh thinking that is making Stratford such a lure for theatre aficionados at the moment.


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