At the Sheffield Crucible, Daniel Evans directs a highly accomplished Othello that’s notable for its clarity, pace and excellent performances. Evans has pulled off something of a casting coup in reuniting two of the stars of HBO’s The Wire (a series whose intricacies have sometimes been described as Shakespearean) for this production, which pits Dominic West’s Iago against Clarke Peters’s Othello. That billing is all that Evans has needed to ensure a sell-out run, but the production’s success is fully deserved, for this is a stark, sharp and powerful staging that grips and involves from beginning to end.
Fresh from his brilliant star-turn in Lindsay Posner’s revival of Butley, West delivers another scintillating performance here. Employing a broad Yorkshire accent to underscore the confidence-inspiring “hail-fellow-well-met” persona that’s central to his Iago, the actor gives a vivid, characterful interpretation. There have been more perverse and chilling Iagos than this but few that have been more convincing and persuasive as successful manipulators, and West unearths a surprising amount of humour in the role too, while not stinting on the underlying bitterness. He’s well-matched by Peters whose Othello has gravitas and tragic grandeur, and who movingly conveys the character’s deep love for Desdemona (a touching, fervent Lily James) in a way that makes the tragedy feel both inevitable and deeply shocking. And, while Colin George's Brabantio is a mite feeble and Leigh McDonald's Bianca somewhat shrill, there’s good work from Gwilym Lee as Cassio and from Brodie Ross as an amusingly lachrymose Roderigo.
And then there’s Alexandra Gilbreath as Emilia. At times, Gilbreath seems to be doing a tad too much in this relatively minor role: her incredible voice, with its exhilarating depths and husky layers, turns the simplest, most straightforward of lines into sweeping, grandiose pronouncements. But her big moments here - from the tenderness with which she invests the “willow” scene and the quiet passion of her plea for female equality to her grief at Desdemona’s murder and fierce denunciation of the men at the end - leave you in no doubt that she’s one of the most magnetic actresses that we currently have the privilege to see on stage. This Emilia starts out as a (slightly frustrated) bawd, and Gilbreath is especially adorable when popping Desdemona’s handkerchief into her cleavage for Iago to find and declaring “I have a thing for you.” But the clarity with which the actress charts Emilia's increase in awareness and refusal to “obey” turns the character into the heroine of the evening, in a production that restores vibrancy and power to even the play’s most familiar, shop-worn moments. Who needs HBO?
Sheffield Theatres website here.