The Importance Of Being Earnest – October 2011


By Oscar Wilde

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Saturday 29th October 2011

This was the Rose’s own production, and they made a good stab at this old favourite. Unfortunately the audience wasn’t ‘in the giving vein’, so some of the humour fell flat. We enjoyed ourselves and although it wasn’t the best we’ve seen, it was a well-balanced production with good performances all round.

The set was by Hayden Griffin but looked like a Simon Higlett special, with the large picture frame straddling the set. The frame’s distressed gilt finish was picked up on the door frames to left and right of the stage, and along the front of the stage as well. Algernon’s flat was furnished with a sofa and tables on the left and a heap of cushions with an upright chair and drinks table on the other side. Double doors at the back and plenty of rugs on the floor completed the scene. The garden had the table and chairs on the right – Merriman had a larger table brought out for the tea things – and a hanging branch behind the frame on the left. Cecily used a real watering can to water imaginary flowers, and the Canon and Miss Prism strolled off through the auditorium for their little perambulation. The drawing room had the usual seats, while a large bookcase centre back held the necessary reference works. It was all nice and simple and, with the elegant costumes, very effective.

Kirsty Besterman gave a lovely performance as Gwendolen; she’ll be as tough as her mother in no time. This was Jenny Rainsford’s first professional role, playing Cecily, and she did a fine job, matching the rest of the cast perfectly. Daniel Brocklebank and Bruce Mackinnon as Earnest/Jack and Algernon were not picked for the similarity of their looks – Daniel is shorter and dark, with regular features, while Bruce is much taller with lighter hair and an agile face made for comedy. Even so, their performances worked very well together.

Ishia Bennison as Miss Prism and Richard Cordery as Canon Chasuble gave nicely detailed performances in these minor roles, while Walter Van Dyk gave Merriman a Scottish accent and slicked down hair to contrast with Lane, who had fluffier hair and an English accent. I always enjoy Lane’s little dig about ‘ready money’ – this was no exception.

Of course the big question hanging over this play is how Lady Bracknell will be played. Jane Asher is almost too good-looking to play such a battleaxe, but her performance overcame that minor difficulty very well. She skipped nimbly over the ‘handbag’ hurdle to get a good run up to the ‘railway station’, which she delivered with astonishment bordering on distaste. Her predatory instincts regarding a prospective suitor’s qualities, especially those which are ‘in the funds’, were great fun to watch.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

My City – October 2011


By: Stephen Poliakoff

Directed by: Stephen Poliakoff

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Wednesday 26th October 2011

Stephen Poliakoff is very good at evoking memories, and this play has more than its fair share. When Richard finds his former head teacher lying on a bench by the river, this chance encounter triggers a memory-fest for characters and audience alike. It’s fascinating to look at the layers of memories, the different perceptions we have when we’re young, and of course the different memories each person can have of the same event, and the different meanings those memories evoke.

The overall story was another simple one, though there were a lot of other stories told during it. After Richard meets Miss Lambert on the bench, he gives her his mobile number, as he wants to keep in touch. She’s more enigmatic about that, but does arrange to meet him and Julie, another former pupil who’s been friends with Richard since school. They meet up in a bar at the top of a huge shopping mall, and after a while arrange to meet again an hour later down in the subterranean depths of the same mall. Miss Lambert spends her nights wandering around London, and this strange behaviour, plus his fond memories, have hooked Richard into finding out more.

Downstairs they find that Mr Minken and Miss Summers are also joining them for a drink. Quite a lot of drink, in fact. These were two other teachers from the same school whom we’ve already met through flashbacks showing us Miss Lambert’s unusual style of school assembly. I don’t remember any of my teachers impersonating large dogs or big black birds during our school assemblies – would have been more fun if they had. Mr Minkin is carrying a suitcase, and explains that he’s clearing his brother’s house out. The suitcase has the things he’s keeping, and these are all old toys he had when and his brother were growing up – as in the assemblies, the toys are used to help tell more stories.

Eventually Mr Minken offers to make supper for the whole group – he’s an excellent cook – and so Richard and Julie find themselves in another basement, this one so close to the underground that they can hear the rumble of trains quite clearly through the walls. A cornucopia of childhood memories is stored in this room, including many of the large pictures which a whole class had made together. There are also some slides and a recording of Richard and Julie doing one of their presentations to an assembly. With Richard’s story of his successful career crumbling, Miss Summers leaves, and then the rest go to a 24-hour café to continue their nocturnal journey. When Julie leaves to take Mr Minken home, Richard and Miss Lambert are left to have the final confrontation, one which will hopefully heal some of her pain and bring her back to the light that she’s been avoiding.

So it’s a ramble through the past, as is usual with Poliakoff. What makes this play interesting is the story-telling aspects. Miss Lambert is particularly prone to telling little stories throughout the play, and during the assembly ones she encourages the children (i.e. us) to listen to the sounds they can hear outside the classroom. It’s amazing how powerful these sounds can be in bringing pictures to mind, and the sound effects were very well done. Many of the stories seemed unbelievable at first, but Poliakoff is known for his research into little known areas of history, so I would guess that they were mostly based on reality. [After checking the program notes, only the Titus Meredith story was entirely made up.]

I found the story-telling so good, in fact, that I felt the energy of the play dropped a bit in the second half. We had been kept in suspense, wondering what had caused Miss Lambert to become nocturnal. We toyed with the idea that she and her fellow teachers were deliberately finding old pupils and sorting their lives out in some way, even going so far as to bump them off perhaps (Sweeney Todd’s still a bit fresh in the memory). Once the real story started to come out, I felt a bit deflated; it was much more fun having the possibilities in front of us compared to the relatively dull reality. It was still interesting, though not as much.

The set was amazing, with lots of different locations created very quickly with lighting effects and some furniture and props. The basement location was the most elaborate, while the cafes were simply tables and chairs with a few signs. The assemblies were represented with two or three small red chairs, kid’s size, and the opening and closing scenes had a large head on the back wall and a park bench – nice and simple.

The performances were all excellent. Tracey Ullman was very prim and proper as Miss Lambert, even reminding me of the Queen at times. Her story-telling was marvellous, and I could well imagine children being inspired by such a teacher. David Troughton was very good as Mr Minken, especially telling the story of his father’s escape from Germany after the Nazis came to power. We were aware of the importance of his little model plane and the box he was carrying, and nearly lost, and I found this the most moving story of the lot.

Sorcha Cusack was lovely as Miss Summers, and Sian Brooke was very good as Julie, tough as nails to begin with, but showing her kindness as well. Hannah Arterton played several waitresses with varying attitudes, ranging from hostility to friendliness, and Tom Riley held it together as Richard, the young man whose career hasn’t been quite as dazzling as he pretended. When he was confronted about this by his teachers, he began to stammer again, a problem from his childhood, and I reckoned they had guessed he was lying because he hadn’t stammered before. It’s as if he could only speak clearly when he was lying in some way, or at least not talking about his own life. When the truth came out, so did the stammer and they could tell it was real.

There were many layers to this play – memories, changes in society, strange lives, the difference between children and the adults they become – and I would probably get even more out of if I saw it again. It was enjoyable to watch, and it’s good to have Poliakoff back in the theatre; he has a distinctive voice, and it’s one I’ve missed.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

How To Be Happy – October 2011


By: David Lewis

Directed by: David Lewis

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 20th October 2011

This play, written and first-time directed by David Lewis, is a look at consumerism and the ways in which it prevents increased happiness in society. It’s a patchy piece, with overlapping scenes in two houses which have identical sofas, and while there was some excellent humour and five excellent performances, it never seemed to have a clear focus; a scatter-gun approach instead of laser precision.

In one house live Paul and Katy, his second wife. He’s a semi-successful writer who went through a rough patch when his marriage to Emma broke up several years before, and who wrote a self-help book about being happy based on his experiences at that time. Katy is a primary school teacher, who was attracted to Paul because of his book. When she met the real man, she realised he wasn’t anything like her image of him, but decided to marry him anyway; it’s clear they’re not suited to each other.

Emma and her new husband, Graham, aren’t a great match either. He’s an advertising ‘guru’, always focused on the newest way to get into the consumer’s mind so he can sell, sell, sell. In this play, he’s trying out a very direct method for getting into people’s minds – an electro-cap which is connected (by wires – very old-fashioned) to his laptop so he can check up on his own brain activity. He does attempt to use the cap while making love to Emma, but the absurd look of him, plus some unexpected news, puts her off. Mind you, she’d thought Graham meant a different sort of cap! – we weren’t fooled.

Also living with Graham and Emma are Daisy, the soon-to-be-eighteen daughter of Paul and Emma, and Jack, Emma and Graham’s new baby. He’s giving them a lot of sleepless nights, which seems to be putting their relationship under a lot of strain, but is it? Or is just stopping them from dealing with their real issues?

The two houses are fairly close, so Daisy in particular keeps popping back and forth until leaving home ‘forever’ on account of her guilt at causing her parents’ divorce. Unfortunately, Emma then freaks her out by finally telling her that the reason she and Paul split up was that he had an affair – too much for the sensitive young thing to take. She’d already walked in on Emma and Graham’s attempt at sex with the electro-cap – too gross for words!

With Paul believing he’s got lung cancer, and then finding out he’s been misdiagnosed and has something less deadly (not good with medical lingo – sorry) there’s a fair amount of life’s ups and downs packed into the first half, never mind the whole play. There’s also a lot of humour in the way Katy doesn’t know how to react to Paul’s ‘good’ news; she takes another bite of her biscuit before responding, which tells us a lot about their relationship as well as giving us a huge laugh. But my favourite joke of the afternoon happened when Paul apologised to Katy for misleading her when he pretended to be a success story. Her tart reply – ‘I’m not a fool! I never thought you were a success story’ – really put him in his place. And in his underpants, too.

So, not a searing indictment of consumer capitalism, but a fairly enjoyable couple of hours at the theatre with some good laughs and excellent performances.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Death By Fatal Murder – October 2011


By: Peter Gordon

Directed by: Ian Dickens

Company: Ian Dickens Productions

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 18th October 2011

Not a great play, although the cast did a good job with what they were given, and the audience were remarkably appreciative. The humour was pretty basic, with plenty of sexual innuendo, grabbing of buttocks and breasts, the occasional fart joke, etc. Some if it worked quite well, and we did have a few good laughs, but most jokes signalled their arrival a fair way out and fell limply onto the stage, hardly raising a chuckle.

The set was a sitting room with an old-fashioned look; turned out it’s an old country house setting. There was a main door at the back, a door to a linking corridor on the right, sofa, chairs, table and the usual assortment of furnishings including two large pictures, one above the fireplace and the other on the right-hand wall. The time was November 1940, and the costumes were appropriate.

The opening scene had a man sitting in one of the chairs in the gloom, and when a woman arrived, she found that he was dead, made some comment about her mother, and then grabbed the poker to defend herself when she realised she’s not alone. Someone else was lurking in the corridor, and she got as far as exclaiming ‘it’s you’, or some such, before the lights went out again and we were left in the dark. The next scene started us off on the quest to discover what had happened to a missing constable, PC Atkins. Along the way we met two randy women, one fake husband, an even more fake Italian, a fake medium, and an elderly local called Miss Joan Maple, with at least one skeleton in her closet! The local police inspector was called Pratt – yes, the humour was that obvious – and kept calling people by the wrong name, as well as mangling nearly every other word. The constable who was helping him, PC Tomkins, was much smarter, and figured out the solution before his boss, but as he’d also broken the law he was likely to be in trouble too. Never mind, it all ended happily enough, although the ghost of Colonel Craddock showed his displeasure at the end.

There were references to other works during the evening; Miss Maple quoted from The Importance Of Being Earnest before the rest of the cast pointed out that was from the wrong play, and the Squadron Leader’s limp and cane were highly reminiscent of a certain Herr Flick – not too surprising since the Squadron Leader was played by Richard Gibson. I suspect David Callister is doing the near-corpse as a technique now – we’ve seen him do it a few times, and last night I found it unconvincing, even though other cast members did their best to back him up.

Overall, the cast did a decent enough job, and I particularly liked Katy Manning’s Welsh psychic. The material wasn’t up to much, but they managed to create a passable performance out of it, which is worthy of an award in itself. Not one I’ll see again, but well done to the cast.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Three Days In May – October 2011


By: Ben Brown

Diretced by: Alan Strachan

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 14th October 2011

This is a play of two halves. The first half was a bit slow, introducing historical characters that needed no introduction for many of us, and setting up the central dilemma: with France nearly taken by the Germans, should Britain’s government consider negotiating a peaceful settlement, or should they focus entirely on resisting the Nazi advance? The official history held that they never thought about negotiations at all, but the reality appears to be that there were three days in May 1940 when the War Cabinet did debate such a possibility. Their final choice, to fight on, shaped our world in ways we probably haven’t fully appreciated yet, and by looking at this ‘wobble’, the play brings the importance of that choice into greater focus.

The set kept things relatively simple. The back wall was covered by a vast map of Europe, which obscured the two entrances to the Cabinet room. The entrance on the left was double doors, while there was a single door on the right. The raised platform in front of the wall held a long table, and there was a drinks table behind this. In front of the platform was a space which held the chairs at the start but was otherwise empty, and Jock Colville’s desk was front right. The costumes were naturally of their time, including Chamberlain’s Edwardian frock coat which he continued to wear.

The play was narrated by Jock Colville, Winston Churchill’s secretary at the time. We were shown the five Cabinet members – Churchill, Chamberlain, Halifax, Atlee and Greenwood – at prayers on the Sunday, followed by a meeting between Churchill and the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud. This triggered the Cabinet debate, with Halifax and Chamberlain keen to avoid the bloodshed of another war, and Churchill temporarily uncertain. Atlee and Greenwood didn’t push the matter initially, although they spoke up later on about the importance of keeping the momentum going so that the British workers (for these were Labour men) would be up for a fight. With Halifax threatening to resign if the negotiation option was ruled out, Churchill has to put pressure on Chamberlain to keep the War Cabinet together.

The second half started with Churchill and Chamberlain having a little meeting before the rest of the War Cabinet arrived. This scene contained most of the play’s humour, and livened things up a lot. Despite his natural inclinations, Chamberlain finally agrees to support Churchill, and keeps his word in the Cabinet debate. The play ends with Churchill smoking and drinking in typical fashion, while Jock gives us a brief update on the history, ending with a quote from Stalin. He leaves, and Winston is left in the spotlight for a moment, then they fade to black.

It was a good ending to an interesting play, as Ben Brown’s usually are. I did think the first half could do with being beefed up a bit; I felt we could have done with more background on just how much these men had been put off war from their experience of WWI (well, not Churchill, obviously). It’s hard to get into the mentality of the time when no one knew the outcome of these choices, while us knowing how things turned out automatically removes any possibility of suspense. But the second half made up for the first, and I thought all the performances were very good. Robert Demeger was not in the original cast, but was excellent as Chamberlain, while Warren Clarke did a very good impersonation of Churchill’s voice and delivery, so good in fact that I couldn’t make out what he was saying a few times early on. But I soon tuned in, and his stage presence was reassuringly strong. Jeremy Clyde was equally as good as Lord Halifax, and the rest of the cast were fine, though they didn’t have as much to do. It will be interesting to see how this gets on in the West End.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Sweeney Todd – October 2011


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler

Directed by: Jonathan Kent

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th October 2011

I didn’t think I would enjoy this as much as I did, but it was a superb production, and although it’s not my kind of thing I’m glad I’ve seen it. Steve would have rated it higher, at 8/10.

I’m not sure I can even begin to describe the set, which was absolutely fantastic. The central roller door concealed the large square platform which had the barber’s shop on top of it (and space underneath for the bodies to be deposited). To the left was the pie shop, with the main counter pushed forward as needed, and the recesses behind, and on the right were a steam whistle and the oven for the pie shop! There was also a large set of stairs which came forward for Johanna’s song about birds and freedom, and a trapdoor through which came various items, including a sofa and a meat grinder (not at the same time, of course). There were electric lights everywhere, and the period for the costumes and set was the 1930s – an unusual choice, made deliberately to bypass the musical’s Victorian ‘baggage’. Personally, I think this period setting worked very well, and gave the piece a more contemporary edge.

The story was very well told, and I was surprised to find how much I sided with Mr Todd and his macabre accomplice in crime, Mrs Lovett. Knowing about the back story helped, and in this production they showed the rape at the back of the stage, up on the platform, while Mrs Lovett was describing it. It was tough viewing, but certainly won my sympathy for the revenge aspects of the story. Of course, I realised who the mad beggar woman was early on, so I settled back for an intelligent and dark Victorian melodrama to music.

And the music was excellent, too. The cast were all miked up, of course, but even so the singing was fantastic – Michael Ball was on great form – and the pie-eating song at the start of the second half was the highlight for me. The choreography for that bit was excellent too, with that delicious pause after the barber has cut another throat before Mrs Lovett announces ‘fresh supplies’! Imelda Staunton is never less than superb, and her Mrs Lovett was wonderfully creepy – she thoroughly deserved her final roasting. John Bowe was a good villain as the judge, and the whole ensemble worked wonderfully well together.

Although I enjoyed some parts of the evening, I found a lot of it quite boring, especially the young lovers’ sections. I found I could hear some of the sung words clearly, usually when there were only one or two people singing, but then the chorus joined in and it all became a jumble of sound. This was also true of the young lovers, who sang well but not clearly enough for me, and I lost interest as I couldn’t engage with them at all. The plot was pretty obvious, so there wasn’t a lot to hold my attention for most of the evening, especially when Imelda wasn’t on stage. And even then, some of the songs went on a bit too long, such as the fantasy human pie-eating. Still, I wasn’t as put off by the murder and cooking as I thought I would, and there was more humour than I expected, so the evening was by no means wasted. Not one I’d see again, though.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Browning Version – October 2011


By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 7th October 2011

This had really come on since we saw it last. All the performances were sharper, and my main difficulty with the earlier performance, back in September, had been totally rectified. I’d felt then that Anna Chancellor’s Millie wasn’t as unpleasant as she needed to be for the play to work; tonight she was as bitchy as could be, and everything fell into place. The only down side tonight was that our viewing angle cut out quite a bit of Crocker-Harris’s reactions, so I couldn’t enjoy Nicholas Farrell’s performance as much as I would have liked. Nevertheless, this was a very enjoyable way to spend an evening.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

South Downs – October 2011


By: David Hare

Directed by: Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 7th October 2011

Yet again, another great performance of this new play. While the performances had sharpened up a bit over the run, I didn’t feel this had come on as much as The Browning Version – Steve disagrees – but that was mainly because they had nailed the play so well from the start, so there was less scope for improvement. If anything, the audience was much better tonight – we laughed much more and much sooner, it seemed to me. No significant changes at all that I could see – I hope this play gets another outing soon.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Tempest – October 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Trevor Nunn

Venue: Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Date: Thursday 6th October 2011

This was disappointing, especially after the two much livelier Shakespeare productions we’ve just seen. I have no criticism for the actors, but the production itself was pretty bog standard and often dull, with just a few good sections to keep us in our seats. Admittedly, we were tired after all our travelling, but we’ve seen plays in similar circumstances and been enthralled; not so today.

My main problem was with the set. Prospero’s cell was to our left, and occupied the left-hand box in front of the pros arch. The boxes at the side were mostly swathed in blue cloth, which gave a sort of connection to the rest of the stage, but the fake boxes on either side of the stage, that were part of the Waiting For Godot set, were left as is, so I could only conclude that this deserted island just happened to have a crumbling theatre on it, which rather spoilt the picture. The brick wall at the back didn’t help either, and although this was masked for the performance, I never felt this was a remote island in any sea.

The use of wires to fly Ariel in and out, along with some of the other spirits, looked a bit clumsy at first, but after a while I accepted it, and by the masque scene I was enjoying the spectacle of several flying goddesses. Ariel’s makeup and movement were a bit jerky, as was the delivery of the lines, so not my favourite interpretation, but it worked well enough in this production.

Nicholas Lyndhurst was reasonably good as Trinculo, but Clive Wood seemed completely miscast as Stephano. Their routines with Caliban were moderately funny, but not as good as we would have expected from such strong casting, so clearly something’s gone wrong somewhere. The rest of the cast were OK, and the lines were spoken well enough, but there just wasn’t any sparkle to the performance, sadly.

One aspect of the staging I did like was the opening section, where Prospero came on stage, laid down his staff across the front of the stage, and conjured the storm as we watched. He then stood back as the crew came up through the hatches, and was a background presence for the early part at least – I didn’t notice him all the way through. Another interesting choice was to use two additional actors as extra Ariel’s – they were able to run around the ship causing mayhem, as described by Ariel later, and adding to the image of a mischievous spirit.

Ferdinand and Miranda were like a couple of teenagers, getting some funny facial reactions from Prospero. When he was talking to them, allowing them to be together, he can hardly get a word in edgeways at times because Ferdinand is so full of formal speeches himself. That worked well, but it wasn’t enough to lift the whole performance. There are better Shakespeare productions to be seen, and not all in London.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Othello – October 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Daniel Evans

Venue: Crucible Theatre

Date: Monday 3rd October 2011

This was our maiden voyage as far as the Crucible is concerned. I found myself getting very excited – I love watching the snooker World Championships, and here I was, in the very building! I took a few minutes after we sat down to see where everything went for the snooker, so that I could put that to one side, and concentrate on the play.

The set was interesting, and effective. A large octagonal platform, sloping towards the front, occupied most of the space. There was a large eight-sided star design on it, suggesting the geometric patterns used in Islam, although it didn’t look particularly Islamic to me. The back wall was made of stone, with strategic gaps here and there. Two very tall wooden doors were placed in the middle, and there were mini arches along the top, along with some carving above the door. Some steps went nowhere on the left hand side – these were used as a platform for the herald, announcing the celebrations for Othello’s nuptials on Cyprus, and also supplied a sort of hiding place when required. Lights were lowered occasionally, and also the curtains for the wedding bed in the final act. Furniture was brought on and off as needed, and didn’t get in the way of the action. There were steps up to the platform all around the back of it. We sat to the left of the stage, and had an excellent view throughout – very little blocking, although we also saw a lot of backs through the performance.

The opening scene between Iago and Roderigo took a little while to get going for me. Dominic West had chosen a local accent for his Iago, and the unexpected sound took me by surprise. Silly really, given our location. Anyway I tuned in pretty quickly, and had very little difficulty later on. I still got the gist of the scene, and that was one of the great things about this production. They told the story really well, so that even when I didn’t catch all of the dialogue, I could see the characters’ emotions and thoughts clearly, as well as the connections of cause and effect which underpin this tragedy.

Roderigo was the same snivelling little brat we know and love so well from previous productions. Brabantio was weaker in this production than we’re used to, but he did well enough to keep the story going. I did like the way that Iago paused before the word ‘senator’ when replying to Brabantio’s insult ‘Thou art a villain’. As a general point, the exits and entrances didn’t exactly overlap as they do in some Shakespeare productions, but they were brisk, which helped to keep the running time down.

The next scene is our first sight of Othello, and Clarke Peters did a superb job with this part. In this scene he’s calm, reasoned and authoritative, stopping the fighting before anyone gets hurt. I did find myself wondering why Desdemona doesn’t appear at this point, although I accept her entrance has a better dramatic effect in the following scene, which starts with the Duke and two senators discussing the threat from the Turkish fleet. It’s always a bit absurd to have the various messages come so fast – the fleet must be travelling at a fair old clip to make such progress – but we’ll allow the artistic licence. This production made the political and military situation nice and clear, so the need for Othello’s services and the respect in which he’s held were well established by the end of this section.

When Desdemona enters she’s covered by a white veil. She removes it when asked to speak and gives it to Iago, who threw it aside. Roderigo must have retrieved it, as he’s clutching it later on. Now there’s always a dilemma when casting the young heroine parts in Shakespeare – do you go for a young, inexperienced actress who can easily represent youth, beauty, naivety, etc., or do you opt for a more experienced actress who can deliver the lines better, but whom the audience has to imagine to be a young girl? This dilemma was thrown into sharp relief for us earlier this year, when we heard Jane Lapotaire delivering a speech of Juliet’s at an event at the Birthplace Trust. No longer a young girl, she still had us believing every word of her speech, such was her ability to convey the thoughts and emotions in every line. The choice tonight was youth all the way, which may have engaged the younger audience members, but left us with a slightly weaker Desdemona than I would have liked to begin with. I warmed to her performance though, and she certainly made the age difference apparent.

When everyone else has left, Roderigo comes to centre stage, clutching the veil Desdemona has left behind, inhaling it to catch her scent, the poor fool. Iago has to work hard to talk him out of drowning himself, but of course he succeeds. His own plans are laid, and I felt his motivation was pretty clear tonight – he’s unhappy at his treatment by Othello, and only too ready to use the suspicion that Othello’s had his wife as justification for his wickedness. There were two significant things about this performance which made it stand out; one was Iago’s totally convincing acting when talking to Othello about Desdemona, and the other was his total presence, always listening intently to pick up extra clues that he can use to his own advantage. He noticed Desdemona’s line about Cassio ‘that came awooing with you’, and that triggered one of his questions to Othello later.

Back to the play: we’re now in Cyprus, and there’s a storm raging, which eventually disperses the Turkish fleet without harming any of the Venetian vessels – how fortunate. Yet again, they saw no need to drench everyone in real water to make the storm ‘real’, thank goodness. Desdemona’s banter with Iago seemed longer this time, and I understood more of it.

The action comes thick and fast now. I spotted that the fateful handkerchief is in Othello’s hand when he and Desdemona head off to bed. Later, Emilia comments that it was Othello’s first gift to Desdemona after their marriage, which explains why Cassio didn’t recognise it. The drinking bout soon had Cassio incapable, and almost without his breeches as well, sitting in a trunk. After the quarrel with Roderigo, Cassio injured Montano, whose wound only bled on the napkin and left his shirt untouched – very helpful to the wardrobe department, I’m sure. Iago’s apparent slip in fingering Michael Cassio as the cause of the rumpus was very well done, and again he acted completely like a man who wanted to help his friend, while actually digging a deeper hole for him to fall into. When he fired Cassio, Othello took his sword and cut through the sash of office which he was wearing – Iago wears a similar sash later on.

We were then ‘treated’ to the music, arranged by Cassio, which Othello is keen to stop. It was an odd combination of a stringed instrument and two woodwind; the tune began with the strings, then one of the woodwind instruments joined in, then the other – the tune was inappropriate and very funny, and I could understand Othello’s preference for silence. There are several short conversations, and then Othello and Iago come on stage just as Cassio leaves. This extended scene is crucial to the play; it’s where Iago begins to plant the seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind, and all Desdemona’s innocent behaviour begins to look deceitful.

A desk and a chair had been brought on towards the back of the stage, on the left side. Othello is dealing with paperwork, signing various documents, and Iago is folding them and tying them up with ribbon. Desdemona’s badgering of Othello is lively and successful, but once Iago gets going, the mood changes. From loving Desdemona completely, Othello becomes disturbed, then angry, and when Desdemona comes back to fetch him in to dinner, he’s seriously troubled. This is where Desdemona drops the handkerchief, not noticing it till too late. Emilia spots it, however, and actually stands over it to speak the first of her lines. She soon picks it up, and when Iago returns, she’s tucked it into her bodice. He gets it from her, after a little chasing round the stage, and then Othello returns, much disturbed by thoughts of jealousy.

This scene between the two men was very well done. I didn’t hear all of the lines, but the emotional charge was very powerful, and the way Iago was manipulating his victim was chillingly clear. He never let up for a moment. Even his plea to Othello to let Desdemona live was reminding Othello of his threat to ‘tear her all to pieces’. When Othello knelt to make his oath, cutting his hand to emphasise his commitment, Iago seized the opportunity to get even closer to the man he was working to destroy. He also knelt, and made an extravagant promise to serve Othello in his quest for revenge, and even though Othello had been constantly going on about how honest Iago was, this took their relationship to the next level. It was a gamble, but a successful one.

They took the interval after this scene, which was probably just as well, as we needed the break ourselves, never mind what the actors felt. The second half opened with some dramatic lighting, as I remember, but the next scene starts with the light-hearted banter among Desdemona, Emilia and the Clown. One of the things I’ve noticed going through the text to write these notes is how continuous the action is, with each scene depending on the preceding one, so there’s no real chance to change the scenes around. This came across very clearly in this production, with the flow of the story being very strong.

This scene continues with Othello’s request to see the handkerchief, and this is the first time that he’s been angry with Desdemona – it’s a shock to her, and to Emilia. I found myself thinking that all marriages go through their difficult phases; unfortunately, this difficult phase has been created by somebody else, which makes it impossible to resolve.

After Othello has left, Iago and Cassio enter, but Iago soon leaves to check on Othello, full of concern of course. When Desdemona and Emilia are just about to head off, I noticed another head peeping round the corner of the door at the back – it’s Bianca. She takes the handkerchief from Cassio and they leave, only for Iago and Othello to return. This is the scene where Othello’s emotions get so worked up that he collapses. I haven’t always bought into that bit, but this time Othello works himself up so much, fuelled by Iago’s promptings, that it seemed completely believable.

When Othello recovers, Iago sets up his biggest deception yet. With Othello ‘hiding’ by the stairs at the back, and then below the level of the platform, Iago easily gets Cassio to talk about Bianca. Othello is hugely affected by Cassio’s behaviour, especially when Bianca reappears and throws the handkerchief back at Cassio. After Iago and Othello have plotted the death of the two ‘lovers’, Lodovico turns up, and again we see Othello display even greater anger towards Desdemona, even hitting her. It’s a ghastly sight, and still the others are doing their best to make allowances for him.

When Othello questions Emilia, I did wonder why she doesn’t tell him about the handkerchief, given that she’s seen how upset Othello was about it, but of course Desdemona’s already lied about it, so she wouldn’t want to betray her. Later, when Iago is with the two women, I could see Emilia start to think when she talks about ‘some most villainous knave, some base notorious knave, some scurvy fellow’; knowing her husband as she does, and that he was deceived by someone about her, she began to look at him with a dawning realisation that the ‘scurvy knave’ may be very close to home. The women leave and Roderigo comes back, complaining yet again that Iago hasn’t delivered on his promises. He even throws Iago to the ground, causing Iago to show some pretend respect for the lad.

When Desdemona is preparing for bed, the eight-fold star outline on the stage is lit up beautifully. A couple of chests are brought on, and Emilia helps Desdemona out of her clothes, packing them away into one of the chests. When they leave, the light fades, and we’re back on the street with Iago and Roderigo, ready to attack Cassio. The scuffle was short and straightforward, leaving Roderigo dead. Then the bed itself is set up for the climactic scene, with the curtains dropping down from above. It became a little crowded by the end, for both Desdemona and Emilia were lying dead on it, side by side, and Othello managed to fit himself on as well, but at least it would have been comfortable enough by that time, for the two swords and a dagger which had been hidden in it had been removed. Quite the armoury, that bed.

The final scene was very moving. Throughout the play, I’d felt great sympathy for Othello. His suffering was plain to see once the jealous thoughts had taken hold, and it was clear that it was only Iago’s manipulation that put them there. His ‘recovery’ from the jealous pangs once Desdemona was dead led to even more suffering, as he realised what he’d done – not much consolation for her, of course, but still deserving of compassion.

We weren’t the only ones who’d enjoyed ourselves; they received a well-earned standing ovation at the end, and I leapt to my feet as well to join in. I noticed a look between Clarke Peters and Dominic West as they left the stage for the second time – what the hell, they might as well enjoy it, so they came back for another round of bows. How we loved it!

The most amazing thing about this production was the energy; I felt drawn in like never before. I’ve often found large chunks of Othello boring – not so tonight. Even though I couldn’t make out all of the dialogue, I was totally absorbed, and felt exhilarated at the end. The two leads worked really well together, and Alexandra Gilbreath was a much stronger Emilia than usual; the only comparable performance I can remember was Amanda Harris at the RSC quite a few years ago now. With such a young Desdemona, the balance between these four characters was different, but still worked really well.  I’m so glad we had such a great experience for our first visit here – we’ll be back.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at