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BWW Reviews: OTHELLO, The CLF Art Cafe at The Bussey Building, January 29 2013

Toting security passes and eyeing helicopters through bins, Othello is the victorious general in some unspecified desert campaign sent to a supply base in Cyprus in the company of his new young wife, Desdemona, and loyal ensign, Iago.

But Iago is not as honest as everyone claims and, driven by jealousy and a Puck-like sense of mischief, unrestrained by morality or empathy, he sets trap after trap for his erstwhile comrades, until his hideous schemes collapse into murder and suicide.

In a world suffused with up close and personal evil in fiction and fact (I'd read of the horrible stabbing of a teenager in Pimlico only a few hours before Iago announced his plan to bring down Othello) it's astonishing that Shakespeare's work still echoes down the centuries, undiminished in its portrayal of a man seemingly without the superego to give pause to his single-minded desire to destroy love with hate. It's a lesson too, because Iago is smart, but not that smart and Othello, though noble, intelligent and capable of great things, is shorn of his judgement once his weakness is identifed and exploited by his nemesis' dripping of verbal poison into his ear. Othello may be extraordinary, but Iago is not - there are men like him on every street. And if another of Shakespeare's flawed heroes, Brutus, tells us that every man has his price, Othello tells us that every man can be turned against the thing he loves most.

In the blackest of black boxes in the fabulous Bussey Building, director Anthony Green uses a traverse stage layout that puts every member of the audience within arm's reach of the action - be it knife fights, deceitful asides or tender moments between lovers. It's this immediacy of emotion that hits you between the eyes in a way that just does not happen in big theatres - there's a real sense of seeing the play as our forebears did 400 years ago.

The proximity of the public and the absence of a set places demands on the actors to walk the tightrope between giving full rein to the emotions that are (literally) a matter of life and death and toppling into melodrama. Fortunately, Mr Green is very well served by his young cast. Zackary Momoh is a charismatic Othello who pulls and pulls against the rage so expertly created by Iago. Harriet Green is a flirtatious Desdemona, overflowing with love and charity, who still cannot accept that the world has turned out as it did even at the very end. Izabella Urbanowicz is a quietly observant Emilia, until the full consequences of her little favour to her husband, Iago, becomes apparent and she turns into the conscience she should have been.

Buit the portrayal of Iago is always the make-or-break in Othello. Can he be that evil, and yet still be trusted by so many? Jack Johns (looking like a nightmarish twin of children's TV presenter Peter Duncan) gets it just right - lurking, plotting, conniving and almost boiling with eager envy as Othello casually knocks out press-ups during a conversation, like the Philosopher-Athlete-King he is. Mr Johns' Iago is funny too, and brave, so you see the man he once was, how he rose to rank in the army and acquired a wife like Emilia. He's toxic, but not obnoxious - it's a skilled and affecting performance.

Othello continues at The Bussey Building until 22nd February with tickets at £12 (or the same price as a West End cinema seat). There may be better value in town - but I doubt it.

Photo Adam Levy.

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