Jonny Phillips (left) and Nonso Anozie in Othello
(Photo © Keith Pattison)
Jonny Phillips (left) and Nonso Anozie in Othello
(Photo © Keith Pattison)
A powerful tale of love and jealousy, Shakespeare's Othello is an enduring classic with meaty roles for fine actors. The Cheek by Jowl production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, under the direction of Declan Donnellan, is uneven but still full of power. Donnellan places the emphasis on the five primary players in the drama: Othello, Iago, Desdemona, Cassio, and Emilia. Oftentimes, when they are not in a scene, they are still visible onstage in frozen tableaux and are even directly pointed to by other characters.

The basic plot of the tragedy is well-known: Iago (Jonny Phillips), jealous that he's been passed over for military promotion in favor of Michael Cassio (Ryan Kiggell), plots revenge against his general, Othello (Nonso Anozie). He schemes to make the latter suspicious of his virtuous wife, Desdemona (Caroline Martin), who is attended by Iago's wife, Emilia (Jaye Griffiths). A handkerchief, given to Desdemona by Othello, falls into the villain's hands; planted in Cassio's chambers, this damning "evidence" convinces Othello that his wife is having an affair with Cassio.

Anozie cuts an imposing figure as Othello. A large man, he dwarfs those around him, particularly Martin's petite Desdemona. The actor possesses a resounding voice and an elegant manner that serves him well in the early scenes of the play, yet he is also capable of showing a tremendous amount of vulnerability. Whereas Othello's descent into jealousy is often played as bestial rage, Anozie's Moor is like a wounded child lashing out at the one he loves and then instantly regretting it. This is most apparent in the scene where Othello strikes Desdemona in full view of Lodovico (Michael Gardiner) and other Venetian gentlemen; after a resounding slap that reverberates through the house, Anozie's face is a portrait of confusion and guilt.

Phillips has his moments as Iago. Unfortunately, the lower-class accent that he adopts is difficult to understand, particularly when he speaks quickly. He is best in the scenes in which he slows down, such as when Iago plants the seeds of suspicion and jealousy within Othello's mind. However, his long monologues to the audience fail to have the desired effect. Oftentimes, Phillips barks out his lines without finding either the poetry or meaning in them.

The first thing you notice about Iago's wife, Emilia, is that the role is performed by a black actress. Perhaps the director wanted to lessen the racial motivations often associated with Iago's vendetta against Othello. Whatever the reason for this non-traditional casting choice, Griffiths is absolutely terrific; the loving bond between Emilia and Desdemona is nicely played, as is Emilia's attempt to elicit affection from her husband. However, it's Emilia's final confrontation with Othello that is the true test of any actress in this part, and Griffiths is luminescent here. She lays into Othello with a fury that rightly gives him pause.

Jaye Griffiths and Caroline Martin in Othello
(Photo © Keith Pattison)
Jaye Griffiths and Caroline Martin in Othello
(Photo © Keith Pattison)
Martin's Desdemona is fairly undistinguished. The actress plays the surface of the role well enough but doesn't give it enough shades to make the character particularly compelling. Due to her small physical size in relation to Anozie's Othello, however, the famous murder scene is particularly horrifying as Othello lifts the struggling Desdemona high into the air, choking the life out of her as she flails about. As Cassio, Ryan Kiggell looks smart in his uniform and possesses an open, earnest face that radiates loyalty. He does very well in his drunken scene and then seems like a kicked puppy as he deals with the consequences of his actions. In this production, Cassio's relationship with his mistress Bianca (Kirsty Besterman) is a little kinky, and Desdemona's handkerchief is used by the pair in a way that induces groans of disbelief in the audience. This bit of stage business is one of Donnellan's missteps, as it does nothing but pull focus from the main action of the play.

Other directorial conceits are also ill-advised. A violent confrontation between Cassio and Desdemona's rejected suitor Roderigo (Matthew Douglas) is staged in an abstract, stylized manner that seems out of place with the rest of the production. Working within BAM's cavernous Harvey Theater, Donnellan has his actors move about in wide arcs during their conversations for no apparent reason other than to make more use of the space. Since this production originated in England, it's possible that the company is used to working on a smaller stage, where such blocking was less distracting. This could also explain the use of flashlights in the opening scene, which might have been effective if the stage were in complete darkness save for those lights; as it is, lighting designer Judith Greenwood shine spots on certain areas of the stage during this sequence, and the ambient light makes the flashlights redundant.

Although Cheek by Jowl's Othello is not one for the ages, it's an engaging interpretation of the play, clocking in at three hours and fifteen minutes; the pace is never slack and the time goes by quickly. The final scene is particularly powerful, and the rawness of its emotion ends the production on a high note.