Othello (2003): Royal and Derngate Theatres, Northampton, Royal Theatre
PRINCIPAL CAST: Theresa Banham (Emilia); William Buckhurst (Cassio); Kate Fleetwood (Desdemona); Finbar Lynch (Iago); Ron Cephas Jones (Othello).
According to the interview with Rupert Goold in the programme, he had seen Ron Cephas Jones at the Donmar Warehouse in Jesus Hopped the A Train, who had expressed an interest in playing Othello. It is also worth noting that Goold takes pains to note - using academic research to bolster the argument - that the American accent is closer to the English spoken in Shakespeare's time.
This production was first performed at the Royal Theatre, Northampton from 10 October - 1 November 2003 and transferred to the Greenwich Theatre, London from 4 - 16 November 2003, according to Theatre Record.
The cast also included two British-Venezualan actors in the cast who are not included in this database: Santiago Cabrera (Montano) and Clara Perez (Bianca).
"Rupert Goold's revival of Othello has much to commend it, it's hard to know where to begin....The Northampton Theatres' young, dashing artistic director has drawn on the neglected fact that, during the war, 130,000 black GIs were stationed over here to bring into sharp focus the threatening allure and tenuous security of Shakespeare's Othello, the great outsider. If you can quibble that the long arm of American racism at the time would never have allowed Ron Cephas Jones's Moor, first seen gyrating away in 'Aleppo's Jazz Club', to assume a commanding role, that doesn't greatly diminish this interpretation's impact....The sheer detail of the performances and the clarity of the verse-speaking justifies the concept; it's as though the entire cast has been energised by the director's imaginative leap....Jones has a gangly, un-macho physique and a lean intelligence that never quite supports his character's too trusting nature or his descent into bestial fury. But the intensity of his infatuation - amply explained by the sight of Kate Fleetwood's stunning Desdemona - makes him satisfyingly complex, by turns sweet, vile and pitiful." ~ Dominic Cavendish, "Magnificent Moor", Daily Telegraph, 16 October 2003
"The American actor Ron Cephas Jones is smart, sexy casting for the lead. Tall, wiry and muscled, he is just the kind of alpha male who might trigger racist resentment, and he's a natural at the charasmatic self-dramatisation that Othello has had to develop as protection. But he often gabbles the verse as though it were naturalistic dialogue and rarely gives the requisite sense of a hero who can fatally hypnotise himself with the beauty of his own verbal music." ~ Paul Taylor, Independent, 10 October 2003
"This horsehoe-shaped, Victorian theatre is a neglected treasure. Under its current director, Rupert Goold, it is also pursuing an adventurous policy. Following Beckett, Pinter and Stoppard, it now offers a second world war Othello starring Ron Cephas Jones, who made a big impact as a bible-punching serial killer in Jesus Hopped the A Train [by Stephen Adly Guirgis, Donmar Warehouse, 2002]. Goold's idea of setting Shakespeare's tragedy in the war raises a logical problem: although black American GIs were unsung heroes, they did not become generals summoned at dead of night to cabinet war rooms. The dazzling verismo of Laura Hopkins's settings - with Othello first seen emerging from a jazz-dive called the Aleppo - also sometimes leads the actors to treat the language as if it were naturalistic film noir dialogue. What the production does have is enormous vitality and an intriguing Freudian undertown. Cephas Jones is a fine Othello: lean, lovestruck and doubly conscious of his isolation as a black American in the British army. He only needs to highlight more the tussle between punishment and pity in his killing of Desdemona. But the significant idea - though one used by Olivier as long ago as 1938 - is the suggestion that Iago, played by Finbar Lynch with dangerous intensity, is driven by a thwarted passion for his boss....Once you've swallowed the unlikely premise of a black 1940s general, the production works well....The real pleasure, however, lies in discovering that Shakespeare is alive and well outside the nationals and the larger reps." ~ Michael Billington, The Guardian, 15 October 2003
"Cephas Jones's Othello is a commanding presence, Brabantio's racist rage no match for his cool gravitas; and it's his American-ness, as much as his colour, that makes him the odd one out among the stiff upper-lips of the cabinet war room. As Othello loses his grip on reality, however, Cephas Jones also comes unstuck. He seems unsure of himself in the Moor's more desperate moments. But his sudden and cruel jealousy is both credible and chilling." ~ Madeleine North, Time Out, 12 November 2003, in Theatre Record 2003, Issue 22
"The Moor is an African-American, feted by the Allies, stationed in the Mediterranean at the head of a mostly English force and married to an English rose of a Desdemona; I don't think one need read too much into his ensign Iago's Irishness. Setting the play in this period both makes a historical point (it is only recently that most of the military service of black Americans has been restored to 'mainstream' history) and places Othello in a culture where racism can be as much a product of thoughtlessness as of conscious hostility....Ron Cephas Jones begins...with similar cool, and maps the change through the central duologues in which Iago expertly stokes the Moor's jealousy. We see him move from impregnable assurance to bluff defensiveness to doubt to barely checked frenzy." ~ Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times, 16 October 2003, in Theatre Record 2003, Issue 22
"When Othello is ordered on his Cypriot mission, he receives his papers from a map-lined bunker that looks suspiciously like the Cabinet War Rooms. Full marks to Goold and designer Laura Hopkins for following through the concept so wholeheartedly. But has anyone stopped to listen to the actual verse speaking? It is an enormous shame to see a production that bursts with so much creative energy have so little regard for the humble iambic pentameter and the tonal variations this metre permits. Ron Cephas Jones as Othello and Finbar Lynch's Iago are particularly culpable, and thus a vacuum gapes where Shakespeare's searing verse should persuade that jealousy and malice boil dangerously. Cephas Jones...looks dashing in his breeches but in every other respect cuts an unimposing figure as his ennui-riddled ensign runs intellectual rings around him. The finest moment for both men comes when Othello takes Iago's bait and succumbs to suspicion - 'Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content' - but monotony of emotion and delivery soon regain the higher ground and remain there until the very end. Other actors appear to have survived the transfer from the Theatre Royal, Northampton, more successfully than either the leads or the colonnades denoting Cyprus, which are pushed awkwardly around to little effect." ~ Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard, 11 November 2003, in Theatre Record 2003, Issue 22
"This production of Shakespeare's tragedy of race hate, jealousy and murder starts thrillingly in a Venice transformed into London during the Blitz. There's the muffled boom of distant bombing as an aperture slides open in the black facade of Laura Hopkins's set to reveal the interior of a car. Here sit two soldiers - Finbar Lynch's poisonous yet disquietingly attractive Iago and Jamie Bowers's doltish Roderigo. Filmed footage of the streets they speed through plays on a screen behind them, as if glimpsed through the vehicle's rear window....Ron Cephas Jones's war hero Othello is discovered in a jazz club, a lanky, loose-limbed American in the chilly land of the stiff upper lip. Here racism is routine. When he is dragged before the father of his young, white bride Desdemona and ordered to reveal what 'drugs' he has used to seduce her, he barely controls his anger. It's clearly not going to take much to tip this highly-strung, much-abused man into fury." ~ Sam Marlowe, "This is a revenge served up too cold", The Times, 17 October 2003
"At the Royal Theatre, Northampton, the current director, Rupert Goold, has been running an unusually enterprising programme, and he has now scored a coup in securing the services of the black American actor Ron Cephas Jones for his new production of Othello. Jones...has the commanding presence that is the first necessity for an Othello. He is lithe and keen-witted: he makes perfect sense of the Moor's pride, passion, vulnerability and rage, of the whole emotional trajectory of the part. Where he falls short is in delivering what Wilson Knight called 'the Othello music'. When he talks about the Pontic sea and its 'compulsive course', for instance, he is too quick and conversational - not compulsive enough, in fact. For the music isn't just decorative. It is part of Othello's character; part of what makes him so massive, and his downfall so terrible....From the start, [the production] captures the dynamism of the play. You are utterly absorbed. You feel yourself tightening with each turn of the screw." ~ John Gross, "Sketchy decadence", Sunday Telegraph, 19 October 2003
"Director Rupert Goold has taken two very bold steps with his production of Othello, firstly to stage it in forties war time and secondly to cast American actor Ron Cephas Jones as Othello. Both moves prove pieces of sheer genius, making not only Othello so much more accessible to its audience but, combined with Jones' casting in only his second UK role, bringing a performance of openness and passion in terms of his delivery of the script and his facial actions. Finbar Lynch's portrayal of Iago achieves an element of downright nastiness, cunning and treachery that has to be seen to be believed. His performance manages to get right under your skin, a wonderful characterisation, which Finbar makes wholly his own....The only weak link in an otherwise brilliant production is the set which had some very shaky moments." ~ Caroline Morris, The Stage, 23 October 2003