Othello (1999): Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre
PRINCIPAL CAST: Ray Fearon (Othello); Rachel Joyce (Emilia); Richard McCabe (Iago); Zoe Waites (Desdemona).
The first performance of this production took place on 9 April 1999.
"Ray Fearon, the first black actor to play Othello for the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, said the play had a lot to say to society in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence murder. 'Shakespeare wrote the play 400 years ago, but we still have the same issues going on in 1999. He presents the issues in such a big way that you can't run away from them saying they are somebody else's problem. It's everybody's problem, so deal with it.'" He believes Shakespeare wrote the part for a black actor and said he felt honoured to be playing it, but not under too much pressure. 'I don't feel I am having to prove something. I have nothing to prove. I am playing the part the best way I know how and revealing Shakespeare's work as I and the company see it.'" ~ "The first RSC black Othello", Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, 15 April 1999
"It is clear that Zoe Waites's sweet Desdemona is as physically delighted by Fearon's Othello as he by her. Indeed, almost more so, given the eagerness with which she strokes him, hugs him, leaves what's here a firework party, and hurries him to bed. And that is a dramatic gain, for it is this very openness and sexual generosity that Iago can exploit. If the girl can give herself so utterly to a Moor and an alien, why not to Cassio, why not to anybody? Up to the newlyweds' arrival in Cyprus I had been girding myself for a worthy but dull evening. Fearon's lack of years seemed to explain why Othello's authority was somewhat lacking too. His verse-speaking sounded over-deliberate and his earnestness almost reduced the great, boastful speech about his winning Desdemona to an anthropological lecture in a failing university....Fearon is not the most profound of Othellos, but, thanks to Waites's unaffected warmth, he is one of the most touching. Again, I have seen more distraught Moors, but few who wailed and gasped and touched their Desdemonas with more feeling. It is not just a case of killing the thing he loves, but of hardly being able to let her out of his arms. And he compensates for his lack of weight by growing in charisma and fire. The man who half-drowns Iago in a ewer, or follows his furious yell of 'goats and monkeys' with a torrent of spit directed at the wife he has just whacked round the chops, is not to be fooled with." ~ Benedict Nightingale, "Young Moor is no less", The Times, 23 April 1999
"In recent years the RSC has disgracefully neglected Othello...The reason isn't hard to find. It has become politically unacceptable for white actors to 'black up', but there are relatively few black actors with the technical skill for the role. So for a decade the RSC has simply pretended this masterpiece didn't exist. Happily, there is now a black actor in its ranks - Ray Fearon - who, though he may be too young for the role, is a performer of tremendous authority. Expectation was high as its director, Michael Attenborough, was responsible for a recent knockout staging of Romeo and Juliet, which also starred Fearon and his present Desdemona, Zoe Waites. Sadly, his Othello doesn't match it for freshness and intensity. This consistently absorbing production is clear, uncluttered and full of intelligent detail, yet it never quite achieves greatness....The new thrust stage and simple scenery in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre suit the play well, the setting - about the time of the First World War - is effective, and verse speaking is undoubtedly improving at the RSC. As so often, it is Iago who steals the show....Fearon plays Othello with real power. His dignity before the Venetian senators, and his palpable love for Desdemona, are beautifully caught, and so too are the progressive stages by which he is maddened. There is a superb scene when, goaded beyond endurance by Iago, he attempts to drown him in a zinc tub, brilliantly foreshadowing the strangling of Desdemona. His violence to her has a stinging intensity, and yet there are touching residues of rapt tenderness. Fearon, however, doesn't quite penetrate the heart of loss in the great speeches of the final act....Nevertheles, the production's strengths outnumber its failings, and it is a real relief to find Othello back in Stratford after so long." ~ Charles Spencer, "Clear and uncluttered but lacking poignancy", Daily Telegraph, 23 April 1999
"Whose play is it? The Moor's or Iago's? In Michael Attenborough's decent, fitfully exciting revival, the first on Stratford's main stage for 14 years, the evening belongs to Richard McCabe's Iago: what one misses is the delicate balance of opposing forces that can make for a truly great Othello. Like Sam Mendes and Trevor Nunn in recent revivals, Attenborough sets the play in a militaristic neo-Edwardian world. Venice is all wing collars and high-backed chairs. Cyprus feels like a British colonial outpost with soldiers in red tunics, Desdemona in a muslin dress and army bands playing in the distance...In an ideal world Iago's envy finds its foil in Othello's jealousy: they should, as in Mendes' production, be two interdependent figures. But, although Ray Fearon is a perfectly capable Othello, he lacks seniority and weight. You should feel Othello's insecurity springs not only from race but from the gap in years between himself and Desdemona" here they look much the same age and maul, grope and paw each other so lasciviously in public, it becomes difficult to accept the sudden eruption of Othello's jealousy. The second half, in particular, lacks credibility." ~ Michael Billington, "Military classic", The Guardian, 23 April 1999
"On this, the Bard's 435th birthday, I shall happily join the weekend's celebrations honouring Paul Scofield - the greatest of all King Lears - at a luncheon on the banks of the Avon. Scofield himself was no mediocre Othello, so there is no particular shame attached to Ray Fearon, a well-spoken 31-year-old, failing to scale the heights. Fearon made history this week as the first black actor to play Othello on the main Stratford stage since Paul Robeson in 1959. Shaven-headed, bearded and with a gold stud in his right ear, he certainly gives a creditable performance. But the role demands more anguish and devastation, and a much more baritonal, awe-inspiring vocal rush. And we haven't had all that, frankly, since Laurence Olivier's blacked-up musical savage more than 30 years ago." ~ Michael Coveney, "Bad guys finish first", Daily Mail, 23 April 1999
"Othellos, like policemen, seem to get younger and younger. In Michael Attenborough's extremely fresh and involved new mainstage production, set in the early 20th century, the Moor of Venice is played by a bearded, shaven-headed Ray Fearon. He is an actor who, only a couple of seasons back, made a big impression with his charismatic Romeo. And therein lies the rub. As was the case, in my view, with the casting of another glowingly youthful, fighting-fit performer, David Harewood, in Sam Mendes's recent National Theatre staging, the painful impact of the play is blunted if you level the age gap between Othello and Desdemona (here a fine, mettlesome Zoe Waites) to that between Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, Attenborough has had to cut the text to acommodate Fearon's conspicuous lack of maturity. When this Othello hunts for reasons for his wife's supposed infidelity, he declares, 'haply, for I am black' but revealingly leaves out 'or for I am declin'd/Into the vale of years'. But the difference of age is important since it extends that range of opposites - racial, cultural and social - which simultaneously makes the central couple's love a wonderful leap of faith and renders it hideously vulnerable to the insinuations of Iago. The villain triggers what we would now call a midlife crisis. Fearon's youth is against him here. Competent, watchable but hollow and vocally monotonous, he never arouses the requisite anguished embarrassment in the audience. At his most impressive, tellingly, when he's stripped to his waist, he fails to suggest a man desperately struggling to cling to a grandiose self-image that, thanks to Iago, he has begun to doubt. When he confronts the Venetian grandees, you can neither believe that this low key pin-up has had a long exotic past or that such slow and nerveless verse-delivery ever managed to spellbind Desdemona. The fault is less with Mr. Fearon than with the trend for premature promotion of the young. Any takers for Leonardo diCaprio's Lear?" ~ Paul Taylor, "Young Moor's almanac", Independent, 23 April 1999