‘O beware my lord of jealousy’

Review of Othello, East Town Park, Haverhill, 22 July 2019

Outspoken Theatre notches up another notable success with its atmospheric, emotionally-charged production of Othello. Under the watchful eye of the local ravens, East Town Park becomes alternately Venice and Cyprus for the evening, while the grisly events unfold.

In perhaps the most heart-breaking of his four major tragedies, Shakespeare throws goodness and nobility to the dogs, allowing the scheming, Mephistophelian Iago, to destroy by turns, Othello, Desdemona and Cassio and Emilia. Themes of jealousy, deception, appearance and reality are explored while the characters are steered helplessly to their fate.

Beginning in the warm glow of the early evening sunshine, the love match between Othello and Desdemona is wholly convincing and beautifully played. Emma Letcher gives an ebullient performance as Othello’s lover, bright and resilient in the face of prejudice, cruelty and confusion. She brilliantly overcomes her own father’s Brabantio bigotry, played with an neurotic, nervous energy by Ian Davison

Steve Murray’s depiction of the Moor (more Lawrence of Arabia than Lawrence Fishburne) is a character study in pride, honesty and conviction. His verse speaking is rich and clear and the force and magnetism of his personality is perfectly conveyed.

Alan Davison expertly plays Iago with a grim, gleeful defiance, winning the confidence of those around him by dint of the bludgeoning persistence of his argument and an amusing ability to be seemingly everywhere at once. Engineering the events almost like a playwright himself, we see him chip away at Othello’s belief in his wife fidelity, while like a cat with a mouse, toying with Cassio at the same time. Of course Iago is motivated by jealousy too – of Othello’s stature and natural gifts for leadership, love and friendship.

Tom Cross’ Cassio is a joy – a genial and generous piece of acting that makes the friendship between him and Othello wholly believable and particularly affecting. When he disgraces himself in a drunken brawl, we feel deeply for them both. Naturally Iago is the one who persuades Cassio to indulge, despite Cassio’s protestation: ‘I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking.’

Othello is a particularly frustrating play to watch; Shakespeare builds huge sympathy for his characters before setting them up for their fall. Each time we hear ‘honest Iago’ we feel a helpless anger and pity. As director David Hart points out in his excellent programme notes, audiences have been known to call out to the characters to warn them of the trap they are falling into. But Iago’s manipulative powers are unstoppable: ‘Beware the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on!’

The consolation of course is the fine poetry conjured by the jealously and madness as Othello believes he has lost his beloved . ‘My heart is turned to stone,’ he confesses. ‘I strike it and it hurts my hand.’  Elsewhere he looks up to an unfeeling God: ‘All my fond loves thus do I blow to heaven.’

Perhaps the performance of the night belongs to Lorraine Mason’s magnificent Emilia, the long-suffering wife of Iago and confidante of Desdemona. The realism of her anguish and dismay is breathtaking as the action plays out. In one of the play’s most affecting scenes, Emilia prepares Desdemona for bed before the murderous denouement begins. The plaintive balled Desdemona sings ‘willow, willow, willow’ is a lament for both lost love and lost lives. It’s desperately sad.

As ever with Shakespeare’s tragedies, the final act is a delicious bloodbath, expertly executed here with murders in the dark, swinging lanterns, the inevitable cries of ‘I am murdered!’ before the Venetians arrive to tie up loose ends and mourn their dead.

There are more cheerful things to do on a summer’s evening in Haverhill, but there can be few that are so rewarding and good for the soul. Bravo to Outspoken Theatre company on their ambitious and accomplished production.

Remaining performances: Thursday, 7.30pm, Stoke by Clare Lion; Saturday, Rolfe’s Farm, Wickhambrook. Tickets are available on the gate at all venues.