Daring choices have become routine for director Declan Donnellan, whose bold productions have revivified classics both rarefied (Le Cid) and tried and true (As You Like It). Othello, his latest Cheek by Jowl offering now at BAM, follows his patent formula: An edgy multicultural cast moves swiftly about in chessboard arrangements hinting at some grand synchronized strategy; nuanced fidelity to the text gives rise to apt theatrical surprises; a modern-dress vibrancy is strived for, though not at the expense of the cultural peculiarities of the dramatic world. Yet this usually foolproof alchemy fails to enliven Shakespeare’s tragedy of love undone by jealousy. Donnellan’s Othello definitely has dynamic verve—rarely are his actors allowed a moment’s repose, with scenes bleeding into each other and principal characters remaining onstage even when not involved in the action. But the stylish frenzy signifies less than what we’ve come to expect from this British auteur. Despite the quickened footsteps and fiery emotional outbursts, the staging often seems plodding and oddly tame.
An outsize man with a gentle round face, Nonso Anozie emphasizes Othello’s openhearted naïveté. Romance is clearly a novel experience for the general, who seems as unprepared for Eros’s deep pleasures as he is for its insidious risks. Lending agonizing poignancy to such lines as “And when I love thee not, chaos is come again,” Anozie makes clear that the Moor would feel less threatened on a foreign battlefield than in the vertiginous precincts of intimate relations. Jealousy unmans him, yet his essential dignity shouldn’t entirely disappear. Kenneth Tynan once described Othello as “a theatrical bullfight, in which the hero is a noble bull, repeatedly charging the handkerchief in the wristy grip of Iago, the dominating matador.” Anozie takes this approach too literally, transforming himself into a sweating, stampeding, even roaring beast. The effect is to make Othello appear dumber than he is—a dishonorable grotesque on par with Roderigo, Iago’s simpleminded dupe.
More damaging, however, is Jonny Phillips’s Iago, a diabolical cartoon who so overplays his villainy from the start that he might as well be hissing his lines. (This would actually be preferable to the garbled rhetorical delivery he inflects with a working-class accent.) Iago’s “motiveless malignity” (to borrow Coleridge’s phrase) gives an actor broad interpretive license. Two recent alternative portrayals stand out: Simon Russell Beale’s middle manager seething with resentment and Liev Schreiber’s shrewd psychological terrorist. Decked in Marc Jacobs–style military fatigues, Phillips offers an obvious, if somewhat trendy, figure of melodramatic evil. Instead of impressing us with his wicked cunning, he makes the Venetians seem like a pack of fools for falling for the chicanery of a human dog.
The rest of the cast is only marginally adequate, with Caroline Martin’s feisty Desdemona rising above the lot (a steep climb when playing opposite Jaye Griffiths’s ridiculously vain Emilia). But the real tragedy of Donnellan’s Othello is the way the catastrophe seems not just avoidable but downright stupid.