While the play may be called Othello as a recognition that it is his tragedy it is Iago’s play and this has never been clearer than it is in Sheffield Crucible’s current production. Dominic West gives a masterly performance in the part. He is completely in control, playing the audience as well as Othello, able to bring out the audacious comedy in the part as well as the manipulative, carefully thought out evil which cares for nothing and nobody but himself. He watches and waits, eyes glittering, chooses his moment and strikes. His victim, Clarke Peters is a very moving Othello whose descent into jealousy and despair is very believable and human. There are things that you could wish to see from his performance which are not there, perhaps greater clarity in his verse speaking and a more magisterial presence in the early scenes, but I am loath to criticise a performance of such honesty and commitment. The scenes between them where Iago is convincing Othello of Desdemona’s guilt are chilling and perfectly done. They have worked together extensively before and it shows.
I also enjoyed Brodie Ross as Roderigo, a lovesick fool who is all too easy prey for Iago, and Gwilym Lee as Cassio, a good honourable man who just doesn’t watch his back quite enough. There are two outstanding female performances from Lily James as Desdemona and Alexandra Gilbreath as Emilia. Lily James is very beautiful, always a good start when you are playing Desdemona, but this is by no means her only asset. She is like a beautiful, delicate porcelain doll, all too easily broken, unable to comprehend what is happening to her until it is far too late and completely in thrall to her charismatic older husband. Emilia is also in thrall to her husband Iago. She has been taking his cruel jibes for too long, colluding in his evil without thinking too deeply about it, and hatred and love for him both run very close to the surface with her. It is a wonderful piece of reacting as we see her despising the bluff Yorkshire surface wit that Iago produces to entertain his mates, knowing all too well the man underneath. There is a whole marriage laid out there, clearly visible, as she watches him with a mixture of admiration and contempt. When the destruction of her beloved Desdemona becomes the final straw her pent up anger and resentment are an unstoppable force.
This is a very faithful, traditional production set in the period it was written, with a beautifully lit set made of a starred tiled floor and crumbling grey stone walls. There is one particularly beautiful piece of lighting when the edges of the star on the floor are lit from above with great accuracy, defining a smaller central space. Lucy Carter the lighting designer has done a fine job, she has worked on a lot of ballet and opera and working on a great Shakespeare tragedy fits into that pattern perfectly. The direction by Daniel Evans is straightforward and unfussy allowing the actors and the showy but intimate space of the Crucible stage to do their work.
I hope that such a great start to her career pays dividends for Lily James, I enjoyed watching her as she seized her chance. I also hope that Dominic West stays on a big stage where he clearly belongs and my long admiration for Alexandra Gilbreath is confirmed. It is always good to see a great part which is somewhat underwritten get the performance which it deserves. This is not a flawless production then, but my goodness there is a lot to admire.