One of the most thrilling, emotionally shattering productions you are ever likely to witness – Daily Telegraph

Thrilling… magnificent… the greatest account of this towering role since Olivier – Sunday Times

World premiere 13 March 2004 Théâtre l’Idéal, Théâtre du Nord Lille
Run time 2hrs 45mins plus one interval

Co-produced by Cheek by Jowl and Théâtre du Nord (Théâtre National Lille Tourcoing Région Nord Pas-de-Calais and Lille 2004). In association with Odeon-Théâtre de l’Europe Paris.

 

 

 

 

 

Venue Country Dates
Théâtre l’Idéal, Théâtre du Nord Lille France 13 – 20 March
Oxford Playhouse, Oxford UK 23 – 27 March
Théâtre Nationale de l’Odeon France 31 March – 10 April
Teatro Valle, Rome Italy 21 – 24 April
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry UK 27 April – 1 May
Theatre Royal, Bath UK 3 – 8 May
The Lowry, Salford UK 18 – 22 May
Arts Theatre, Cambridge UK 25 – 29 May
Istanbul International Festival Turkey 2 – 4 June
Maly Theatre, St Petersburg Russia 10 – 12 June
Maly Theatre, Moscow Russia 14 – 18 June
Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon Portugal 23 – 26 June
São João National Theatre, Porto Portugal 30 June – 3 July
Teatro Municipal, Almagro Festival Spain 6 – 7 July
Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre China 11 – 18 July
City Hall, Hong Kong China 21 – 25 July
Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay Australia 4 August – 4 September
Teatr Dramatyczny, Warsaw Poland 13 – 14 September
Mahen Theatre, Brno Czech Republic 18 – 19 September
State Theatre, Prague Czech Republic 23 – 24 September
Tivoli Theatre, Dublin Eire 29 September – 1 October
Brooklyn Academy of Music, NY USA 5 – 11 October
Freud Theatre, UCLA Live, LA USA 14 – 17 October
Riverside Studios, London UK 10 November – 4 December

Originally Published in The Guardian newspaper on  Wednesday 10 November 2004. Posted here  courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd. Original link: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/nov/10/theatre2

March 13: Lille
Our first performance. I was terrified: what if the play went really badly? It would affect the morale of the whole group: we might have to spend the rest of the year doing a play we didn’t believe in. Instead, the response at the Thétre du Nord was completely unexpected – the audience gave us a standing ovation!

Because we were performing with surtitles projected above the stage the audience were sometimes a little bit behind or ahead of the action, but it all came together. Now just 200 or so more shows to go.

March 23: Oxford
Our first performance in front of an English-speaking audience and it’s as scary as the first night. This audience is more used to seeing classic plays; I can’t help but feel that some people will come more to judge the production and compare it with their idea of Othello than for a night’s entertainment. From what I’ve read, a lot of people before me – mostly white actors – seem to have been overly concerned with the “otherness” of Othello, with conveying their idea of him as a black man. I want to concentrate on Othello as a human being rather than a colour – someone with whom the audience has an emotional connection.

April 2: Paris
When we first got to the Odéon, the entire staff came out to meet us – not just the lighting people and the stage manager, but everyone who works in the offices and front of house. That would never happen in Britain. I don’t like reading reviews but they’re all over the walls here. One paper said I am “the most complete Othello in the world”. Me? You can’t take statements like that seriously – what it would do to your ego beggars belief.

Before I took this job, I stopped myself from seeing other Othellos so that I wouldn’t be influenced, but I can’t help but think of the calibre of actors who have played the part before me – Ira Aldridge, Paul Robeson, James Earl Jones. It’s as if the whole company is becoming part of an ancient tradition. This theatre has a traverse stage, with audience on two sides instead of just in front of you. It’s exhausting, but on this stage you can’t get away with tiredness: every expression can be seen by someone. But it gives more energy to the whole production – you can feel it bouncing off itself.

April 23: Rome
This is the first place where I’ve felt I can closely relate to Othello’s sense of isolation. Rome really isn’t a multicultural city and Othello isn’t really done here with a black actor playing the lead. The show is going really well and everyone I meet is really friendly, but I can’t help but feel like a second-class citizen when I’m made to wait 45 minutes to be served in a restaurant and get disdainful looks from (mostly older) Italians.

May 27: Cambridge
People here know the play very well – even more than in Oxford. Audiences watching the play seem to be anticipating speeches: you can see signs of recognition on lines like “Beware of jealousy” and “Chaos is come again”. It’s refreshing to have an audience so alive to every moment.

June 2: Istanbul
Othello talks about the Turks as the enemy – and here we are performing in Turkey! It’s as if the play and the tour are overlapping: the hotel I’m staying in looks out over the Pontic Sea (“whose icy current and compulsive course/ Ne’er feels retiring ebb.”) so now when I say Shakespeare’s lines I have a real image in my head. I feel like being here is going to change the way I do this role.

June 14: Moscow
I had a lot of negative preconceptions about Russia, mostly from an Arnold Schwarzenegger film where Russians were the bad guys. And I don’t know why, but I thought everyone here ate cold potato soup served by a woman with a moustache. Not surprisingly, everything I thought was wrong. The Russians do eat a lot of borscht, though. I’m eating it too – it’s helping me fill out my costume.

The theatre culture here is unbelievable. It’s much more revered than film. We had a press conference and the room was full of TV and newspaper reporters. And the way actors work is crazy. The average Russian actor, if lucky enough to join a rep company, will spend up to three years rehearsing a single play, and then perform the same play for up to 15 years. I spoke to an actor after the show; he said he loved it but he could see it was still young and fresh and that it needed “five years to get to the right place”. I laughed – it’s just a completely different mindset.

July 16: Shanghai
People here are incredibly inquisitive about me: I’m tall, I’m black, I’m completely different from them. They seem very surprised by my appearance, but it’s not a negative prejudice: people look at me because they’re interested to know about me. I can’t understand why people can’t be this positive everywhere you go. I’m on TV a lot doing interviews, which means people aren’t just noticing me but recognising me as an actor. It’s almost like being a movie star. The attention is nice but, like the reviews, I don’t want to let it affect me.

August 20: Sydney
We are back in front of English-speaking audiences; it’s refreshing not having to worry about people keeping up. But this is also the first time I’ve felt really homesick on the tour. It feels like things are getting silly now: we’ve done over a hundred shows now and that, plus the travelling, is taking its toll. You have to find new ways of performing, otherwise the play dies. Luckily, feeling fatigued creates a real conflict inside you – you have to do the show but you feel like you don’t want to – and you can tap into that on stage, add it to the drama.

September 14: Warsaw
We had a week off to recover after Sydney but it wasn’t even enough to get over the 24-hour flight back to London. Everyone is tired and lots of people have the flu. Worse, Caroline Martin, who plays Desdemona, has a kidney infection. Cheek by Jowl doesn’t have understudies, so Kirsty Besterman, who plays Bianca, is doing both roles. In Sydney, I felt a lot of responsibility for the production because I was playing the lead role. Now I’m doing it opposite someone who’s on stage with the book because she doesn’t know the lines.

She’s brilliant, but she doesn’t always know how and where she’s supposed to move. At times I have to move her myself, in as unobtrusive a way as possible. It makes me feel more responsible than ever – but it’s also making the play feel even more immediate and alive. The audience response is weird. They all clap in unison, very slowly, as though they’re about to boo us off. Then you realise that actually they love it.

October 5: New York
This is the first time on the whole tour that I haven’t felt like I’m in a minority. We’re performing in the Harvey Theatre in the Brooklyn Academy of Music; I feel surrounded by African and African-American people and culture. It’s like where I grew up in London, much more multicultural. I don’t feel like the exotic black man any more here, and that alone takes the pressure off.

October 30: Lagos
I screamed with joy when I first heard we were going to Nigeria; my parents were born there, and came to England to work and study in the 1970s. Going there to work feels like I’m completing that circle. We’ve had standing ovations and you can’t help but feel that the audience is proud to see a fellow Nigerian leading a British company. My mother hoped to come over a few weeks before me to bring the family to see the show, but she hasn’t been well. It turns out, though, that it has been screened on Nigerian TV, so my cousins got to see it anyway. It’s been really emotional being here – but it’s also the best place on the map so far.

Next stop London …

Cast
Nonso AnozieOthello
Jonny PhillipsIago
Ryan KiggellCassio
Matthew DouglasRoderigo
David HobbsBrabantio
Michael GardinerDuke of Venice
Caroline MartinDesdemona
Jaye GriffithsEmilia
Kirsty BestermanBianca
Robin PearceGentleman
Oliver BootGentleman
Alex KerrGentleman

Creatives
DirectorDeclan Donnellan
DesignerNick Ormerod
Movement DirectorJane Gibson
Lighting DesignerJudith Greenwood
MusicCatherine Jayes
Edward DickAssistant Director
Julia HoranCasting Director
(click to expand)

UK


At last! Cheek by Jowl is up and running again. This high calibre company has virtually been on hold since 1998 when founding director Declan Donnellan and his designer Nick Ormerod headed off to win huge acclaim with Moscow's Maly Drama Theatre and the Bolshoi. Now they are back in the UK, staging Shakespeare's Othello - which they last tackled back in 1982.

Ormerod's set design in simple and spare with the audiences banked on either side of a long dark space that's furnished with five military cargo crates. Darting among these on their way to war committee meetings, the pinstriped governors of Venice appear to be hurrying round a maze of alleys or corridors. Simultaneously, Nonso Anozie's Othello and Caroline Martin's Desdemona come face to face and are transfixed in a pool of light: an immortalised moment of love at first sight an a still point in a hectic world.

Donnellan's brilliant stroke is to keep the key characters on stage whenever they are being spoken of by others. Thus, they visibly haunt their lovers and obsessed enemies. Most poignantly, the sense of imminent loss is heightened as Jonny Phillip's Iago starts besmirching Desdemona's reputation while we see her, standing on one of the gun crates like a makeshift pedestal, still luminously beautiful, as if pictured in her husband's memory. This also makes one think of Hermione's statue in The Winter's Tale (the late romance Donnellan staged with the Maly) even as one knows that, tragically, the marital jealously will be fatal here, with no magical resurrection.

Phillips' Iago is, meanwhile like some decimating Prospero, armed with a swagger stick instead of a wand. When he soliloquises, plotting out his drama of destruction, his victims stand around him impotently suspended in time and - in this ironically defenceless, open plan realm - he has only to conceive of dropping Desdemona's handkerchief into Cassio's hands, then reach over and, hey presto, it is done.

The production has its weak points. There are some reductive textual cuts and Anozie can sound vocally lightweight, skimming over certain richly lyrical lines and visceral curves. Inversely, Phillips slightly overdoes the vibrato and menacing, slow delivery of his speeches, though it does create an intense, dream like atmosphere. His emotional ambiguity is most intriguing, for you are never quite sure if he is acting or actually quivering with regret as he hesitates in his tête-á-têtes with Othello. Moreover, his sudden leap forward with gaping, silent mouth, in reaction to Othello's suicide, might be morbid ecstasy or suppressed love, surfacing too late.

Physically, both the male leads are riveting. Skeletally gaunt and unshaven, Phillips looks like a desert rat (both animal and military) and a viper (spitting as if his mouth tastes poisonous). In contrast, Anozie is a mountain of a man. That's to say, touching when he is a gentle giant with Martin's Desdemona, who stands on tiptoes to kiss him, and horrifying when he strangles her, lifting her above his head with her legs thrashing against his waist. Martin is herself outstanding, still girlish and tragically confident that her husband's love (unlike her father's) is reliable. Jaye Griffith's black Emilia becomes profoundly moving as well, lounging with Desdemona on her bed like a tender big sister, then proving ferociously devoted and dying by her side. All in all, this is an ensemble realising a directorial vision that is full of insights. Well worth catching.

Kate Bassett, Independent on Sunday. 21 November 2004

France


Donnellan, The Man who Loves Actors

Declan Donnellan's real passion is for actors. You might say that, for a director, that's par for the course. But it's by no means guaranteed these days, where the job, a relatively recent development, is often practised by people more anxious about their egos than wonder-working. For Donnellan, it's understood: the theatre is primarily for actors. "Actors," he says, "are the most fundamental element in the theatrical process."

Were you to ask him to talk about Shakespeare, that worshipped author, venerated and unceasingly studied and performed, and about the Othello that he is producing in Paris at the moment, he would stop you immediately, before even talking about the play, to sing the praises of the actor who plays the Moor of Venice: Nonso Anozie, British, of Nigerian origin. "He just is Othello!" Right. That is to say? "It's impossible to describe. I hate adjectives like I hate 'ideas'. Let's just say it's like this: he's inspired me, and there's nothing more precious for a director than to be inspired by the people he works with."

Evidently Declan Donnellan is also inspired by his texts: the greatest, most sumptuous texts if possible, that is to say those capable of producing a kind of intoxication, those which invite the actors and the public to what he calls a "communion". A term which is hardly surprising coming from this man who, when talking of the drama, willingly uses religious metaphors, defining the theatre as "a sacrament" which "brings him peace". A strange and paradoxical description, it might be said, when you learn how strongly he regards his job as a risky one "since a production is never definitive, it's always a 'work in progress'. Theatre is a living art, right? So, it changes every day."

This Englishman, of Irish origin, gave up a career as a lawyer. It was indisputably a good decision. Especially if you believe, for example, the great Peter Brook ? little suspected of laziness or sycophancy ? who commented, in 1991, about his production of Shakespeare's As You Like It, that: "Of all the versions of this play that I have seen, Declan Donnellan's is by far the best. A celebration for the spirit!"

Ah, Shakespeare! Donnellan will have devoted his career to him. Nearly one season in two, since his first Othello in 1982, Donnellan, co-founder in 2002 of the Academy of the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, has produced one play (and sometimes operas, notably Falstaff with Claudio Abbado in 2001) by the Elizabethan: Macbeth, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest and that Twelfth Night that we saw recently with a company of extraordinary Russian actors. Shakespeare, clearly, is the man. But also plays by other word-magicians, the great lyrical voices: Sophocles, Calderon, and also Michel de Ghelderode or Tony Kushner. And the French playwrights: a Cid which had huge success and an Andromaque of which this modest man is particularly proud: "Imagine, an English premiere, after three hundred and fifty years!" Musset, as well, with "On ne badine pas avec l'amour" which he translated himself.

Donnellan has things to say about the classical repertoire. But exegesis is not his first concern. "Shakespeare," he considers, "was first of all an actor who wrote plays. Like Moliere." Donnellan has found happiness in Russia, a land which returns the love he feels for it; he is an Associate Director of the Russian Theatre Confederation. His productions of Pushkin's Boris Goudanov and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet at the Bolshoi were hailed with that generous fervour so characteristic of the Slav. "Well, yes, I suppose I'm liked in Russia." The Russian soul, twinned with the Irish soul? Not exactly; in any case, surely not for sentimental reasons, that psychological disposition that Donnellan hates so much. "But with the Russians there is," he says, "this inclination for the group. That can be dangerous sometimes but in the theatre it's so precious. The actors, the company, the Russians understand that straight away, which isn't always the case with the English and the French."

Still this idea of a group. "The job of a director is to respect individuals and help the actors to work together." A cheering point of view that Declan Donnellan has developed into a book, The Actor and the Target... which deals with the breath, the target, patience, modesty and attention. Like an allusion to Herrigel's famous little book, Zen and the Art of Archery which, for simple reasons of efficiency, exalts those virtues which seem to have influenced this great director.

Invitation to Ecstasy

What theatrical joy! After seeing Declan Donnellan's production of Othello, you are exhausted, ravished, you might even have wished that the enchantment would last longer, that time stood still, as Desdemona sighs, "Kill me tomorrow/ Let me live tonight". The exceptional splendour of this spectacle has several causes. The author, first of all, Shakespeare, to whom this stubborn director returns tirelessly, and this work which is perhaps, according to the director, "the greatest tragedy every written".

And then there is the traverse staging (the stage in the middle, surrounded by audience), giving the production an air of ceremony - which is not a synonym for boredom, but an invitation to ecstasy and communal jubilation. And finally, the essential: the actors.

They are Donnellan's first concern, before the set (non-existent, in this case) or the costumes. They are extraordinary: Nonso Anozie, a massive and fragile Othello, Caroline Martin, an impressive Desdemona, or Jonny Philips, who portrays a classic Iago. I should list them all. But what does it matter, as Donnellan, as has always been his taste, in spite of his attention to each, prefers what we call a company.

How well that functions, and with what efficacity! What mastery in this extreme, immoderate, dangerous play. Donnellan has got the hang of a problematic balance: to make the most accomplished artifice seem natural, to express the most extreme violence and grief, affectations and the baldest prose. On stage they cry, they groan, they curse, they weep tears that "soften the stones", without ever resorting to the hysteria or epileptic apings which are the temptations of such a text. Even the exemplary, long and painful denouement is managed magnificently here, after a wisely and musically orchestrated crescendo.

One regret, perhaps. The surtitles are hesitant and often approximate. Take one precaution: to read, if not to learn, the text before you hear it, so that the story won't be, as the great William says, "left unknown like mud".

Interview and review. Unattributed, translated by Bridget Collin, Le Figaro. 3 April 2004

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