Before Othello begins, a monochrome multiscreen display on stage offers dates that unspool at speed: 1634… 1983… 1994… 1826… 2019 – each a year in which Shakespeare’s tragedy has been staged. This is accompanied by images of Othellos of yesteryear, Paul Robeson handsomely dominating. I could not spot Olivier (beyond the pale, perhaps – pale being the operative word), nor Adrian Lester, the National’s last and triumphant Othello in 2013. Although presumably not the intention, the focus on theatrical history is displacing because it sets up what we are about to see as no more than an example – a non-definitive addition to productions that have gone before. And to reinforce this postmodern, semi-detached approach, designer Chloe Lamford offers us a stark amphitheatre upon the steps of which director Clint Dyer has ill-advisedly installed a silent chorus of actors, to react intermittently to Iago in unison – a busily distracting second audience.
The production begins with an incendiary atmosphere with sparks flying at the back of the stage, mixed with a funereal vibe – the cast are dressed in black and grey – as if the story were over before it began (which may be how those who have seen many Othellos feel). In spite of the misfiring conception – one that parts company with any possibility of Othello being a claustrophobic chamber piece – there are outstanding performances to ensure the production torments as it must. The matchless Giles Terera, fresh from starring recently in Blues for an Alabama Sky, also on the Lyttelton stage, is a dynamic and disarmingly vulnerable Othello and always light on his feet no matter how heavy his heart. There is a harmonious fluency to his verbal self-defences – it is a beautifully controlled performance. He is capable, too, of moments of profound stillness in which you are aware only of the dangerous flash of his eyes.
Paul Hilton, another highly accomplished actor, will thrill those who like their Iagos overtly villainous (I have to confess to preferring the frisson of Iagos who are plausibly “nice”). This Iago has a haggard, malnourished look, with a greasy forelock and a nasty little dictator’s moustache. When he talks to himself early on, he comes across as pathetic with the self-importance of someone struggling against a lower status than he would like to have. Later, he turns into a more lethal practical joker, a pantomime villain without a pantomime.
Rory Fleck Byrne’s fresh, honest and affecting Cassio is in pleasing contrast, living up to the marvellous line “Cassio hath a daily beauty in his life”, and Tanya Franks applies a keen intelligence to Emilia’s dimwitted collusion with her husband. But it is Desdemona who steals this show – I have never seen the part better played. She is too often no more than a lamb to the slaughter, a trampled petal. Rosy McEwen is brave, upright, her own woman – and movingly embodies absolute trust right up to the end. And speaking of endings, although I understand the temptation to trim and tidy (and Shakespeare is infinitely hospitable to changes), to finish with Iago repeating the line “What you know, you know” is as crude as defacing the text with a highlighter pen.
Jasmine Naziha Jones is a British Iraqi actor who stars at the Royal Court in her first play, a semi-autobiographical exploration of growing up as the daughter of an Iraqi father in the UK as the Gulf war broke in 1990-91, and in the turbulent years that followed. There is no mistaking Naziha Jones’s integrity or her multitasking talent. But Baghdaddy (a nice coinage) is unevenly written and a mixed experience to watch. It is filled with theatrical novelties that stifle the story itself. Milli Bhatia restively directs shouting clowns in scarlet and green who act as sinister, tub-thumping, interventionist narrators. The feel is of a bullying playschool with a lot of dry ice and loud confrontation.
The play begins and ends in McDonald’s (convincingly conjured by designer Moi Tran with graceful white arches that seamlessly translate to the scenes in Iraq). We look in on a McDonald’s unhappy meal as Dad, played with likable gravity by Philip Arditti, is, in his daughter’s company, suddenly extinguished, his head, with its McDonald’s party hat, dropping in prayer or defeat – hard to say which. The satire throughout is thin and the slapstick tiresome. One example: three posh philanthropists, with their hearts in the wrong place, are sneeringly overstated – most charitable efforts are surely not so wrongfooted?
But far more seriously problematic is the preaching-to-the-converted quality of Naziha Jones’s final polemic about Britain’s role in the Iraq war. It is a fair bet that no one in the Royal Court’s audience will have disagreed with a word. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the evening’s most liberating ensemble moments scrap speech altogether and turn to dance instead – war as a nightmare disco (the playwright’s dancing proves another of her strengths). But in the end – and at the end – the most moving and powerful offering is the simplest: Dad launches into an account of the death of his brother, a carpenter who got killed on his way to work. This is unexpectedly written as a rhyming ballad and beautifully delivered, and there is no one to interrupt: he is alone with the story itself.
Star ratings (out of five)
Othello is at the Lyttelton, London, until 21 January 2023
Baghdaddy is at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London, until 17 December