Othello (1984): Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, Lyric Studio, Hammersmith

PrOthello (

Location: Lyric Studio, Hammersmith
Live Performance

PRINCIPAL CAST: Maureen Beattie (Emilia); Joseph Marcell (Othello); Sian Thomas (Desdemona); Philip Whitchurch (Iago); Peter Wight (Cassio).

This production ran from 10 September - 3 November 1984.

Hammersmith's Lyric Studio Theatre has an inbuilt advantage for the staging of Othello which works throughout to sustain and strengthen Michael Boyd's production. It is its modest size. This being Shakespeare's one domestic and contemporary tragedy, it gain [sic] greatly in intimacy and immediacy when we in the audience seem to be sitting in the same room with the action. Peter Ling's design uses simply two square walls, so that the spectators form the other two....Never was the tragic muse so effectively domesticated. The main interest of this revival otherwise is the playing of the Moor by a black actor, Joseph Marcell. His considerable experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company has taught him much about the speaking of verse and the shaping of a speech. Slight in figure, light in voice, not at all 'declined into the vale of years' but with a boyish sweetness of manner, Mr. Marcell suggests both the simplicity and integrity of the exotic African. But his growing suspicions, and jealousy, are less impressive for coming in sudden squalls of anger which quickly blow over. No quick outburst, however, can impress like a slow, grumbling tempest which gathers force and eventually bursts into a blinding storm. Control was always the secret of playing Othello - that, and a great ability to find the music in some of the poet's richest language. Philip Whitchurch makes a capitally malevolent figure of his tormentor. His obscene giggle on 'I hate the Moor' is memorable. But honest Iago should strike everyone as wholly that, whereas this snarling cynic looks about as trustworthy as Richard Nixon."  ~ John Barber, "The tragic muse domesticated", Daily Telegraph, 19 September 1984

"Michael Boyd has dared hugely and created a wayward but fascinating Othello which, although it does not draw its central ideas to their dramatic conclusions, still manages to make you see the play anew and different. He has envisaged Venice and Cyprus as clean, different worlds: the first tends to still order and harmony, with 17th century choral music suggesting its gradeurs and splendour; the second is presented as a violent, riven society where alien Eastern sounds remind you how unwestern it is. In this scheme Catholicism becomes a religion which fails: the production has, as a prologue, mimed ceremony of Othello's marriage, and Peter Ling's clever stage design, which is kept throughout, contains a candle-lit Madonna which Iago is on the verge of smashing, to which Desdemona almost makes the sign of the cross on her last night alive, and whose candles the Moor puts out before the murder....Joseph Marcell, one of those rare and authentically black Othellos, creates him as unsympathetic, unlikeable and completely convincing: this small, cold Moor, first seen as a phlegmatic, charmless warrior strutting calmly in his white lace ruffs, does not degenerate into the screeching paroxysms of grief and despair which are the familiar Othello notes."  ~ Nicholas de Jongh, The Guardian, 20 September 1984

"Othello works well as a chamber play, but it is a notoriously difficult piece for actors and directors. Since Olivier 20 years ago, apparently well-equipped Othellos like Paul Scofield and Robert Stephens have bit the dust. Joseph Marcell, a short, stocky, well-spoken black actor, misses the strangeness of the role, playing the Moor not so much as a brooding General but as a Sandhurst Silver Sword graduate of good middle-class African background. He hears bongo drums after anointing Iago in his own blood (a rather gratuitious touch, that) but is hardly the alien poetic creature Olivier created. Perhaps that is the point. At any rate, he misses the soul of the role. It is not just to do with magnetism, though that is at a premium. The verse is a symphony of colour and variety and for all its energy and smartness of staging, Michael Boyd's production simply does not do the verse justice. On demanding his 'ocular proof,' Mr. Marcell clamps Philip Whitehead's [sic] spiritedly ingratiating but carelessly articulated Scouse Iago in a head-lock, throws him across the floor, and seems to acquire a fixed antic disposition rather than begin his slow and tortured decline. The modulated pleasantness of his dealings with the Senate, his passionless dealings with Desdemona, yield only to a ranting anger. Upstairs on the main stage a few actors are ranting in an attempt to breathe life into Sartre. Here there is no excuse....With a little more attention, this production could yet grow into something really powerful....It certainly looks impressive, stock Jacobean costumes transformed by the ingenious design and spatial inventiveness of Mr. Boyd's staging."  ~ Michael Coveney, Financial Times, 19 September 1984

"Something of a shock after recent Othellos, Michael Boyd's production makes a point of being firmly set in the Renaissance [probably a dig at David Thacker's modern-dress production earlier in 1984]. In the first moments, swelling Monteverdi accompanies Othello's wedding, an ominously private affair since the groom has no friends and the bride's are snubbing her. Thereafter, Peter Ling's Tintoretto costumes (Othello's the finest of all) constantly evoke the sumptuous, complacent society that needs the Moor but will never fully accept him....For their joint vow of vengeance Iago kneels to the Virgin, but Othello to unseen gods of his own - and, rather unnecessarily proclaims his return to the jungle by tearing off his doublet as tribal drums rise on the soundtrack. Joseph Marcell (formerly of the RSC) is a slight, handsome Othello of great openness and charm, whose stylish verse-speaking belies his claim to 'rudeness of speech'....The production, though, desperately needs a really rich performance near the centre. What it gets is Philip Whitchurch's Scouse Iago, given to grins that crinkle the corners of his eyes in obvious insincerity, and constantly smirking after lines whose point he has failed to make....Once again this studio, proves to be a designer's paradise. Unfortunately, as this Othello shows, it also puts underdeveloped performances in an unflattering spotlight."  ~ Anthony Masters, "Tribal drums and death in Venice", The Times, 19 September 1984

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