One of the most thrilling, emotionally shattering productions you are ever likely to witnessDaily Telegraph
Thrilling... magnificent... the greatest account of this towering role since OlivierSunday Times

World premiere 13 March 2004 Théâtre l'Idéal, Théâtre du Nord Lille

London run November 10 - December 4 2004 Riverside Studios. Run time 2hrs 45mins plus one interval

Co-produced by Cheek by Jowl and Théâtre du Nord (Théâtre National Lille Tourcoing Région Nord Pas-de-Calais and Lille 2004). In association with Odeon-Théâtre de l'Europe Paris.

Find out more by visiting the entry for this production in our archive
Cast

In order of speaking

Nonso AnozieOthello
Jonny PhillipsIago
Ryan KiggellCassio
Matthew DouglasRoderigo
David HobbsBrabantio
Michael GardinerDuke of Venice
Caroline MartinDesdemona
Jaye GriffithsEmilia
Kirsty BestermanBianca
Robin PearceGentleman
Oliver BootGentleman
Alex KerrGentleman

Creatives
DirectorDeclan Donnellan
DesignerNick Ormerod
MovementJane Gibson
LightingJudith Greenwood
MusicCatherine Jayes
SoundPaul Arditti
Assistant DirectorEdward Dick
Casting DirectorJulia Horan
Production ManagerWill Harding
Company Stage ManagerTerry Eldridge
Deputy Stage ManagerClare Loxley
Wardrobe SupervisorAngie Burns
Wardrobe ManagerVic Cree
ProducerRoy Luxford
Press & MarketingMark Slaughter
AdministratorJoanna Morgan
Assistant AdminJacqui Honess-Martin

2004

At last! Cheek by Jowl is up and running again. This high calibre company has virtually been on hold since 1998 when founding director Declan Donnellan and his designer Nick Ormerod headed off to win huge acclaim with Moscow's Maly Drama Theatre and the Bolshoi. Now they are back in the UK, staging Shakespeare's Othello - which they last tackled back in 1982.

Ormerod's set design in simple and spare with the audiences banked on either side of a long dark space that's furnished with five military cargo crates. Darting among these on their way to war committee meetings, the pinstriped governors of Venice appear to be hurrying round a maze of alleys or corridors. Simultaneously, Nonso Anozie's Othello and Caroline Martin's Desdemona come face to face and are transfixed in a pool of light: an immortalised moment of love at first sight an a still point in a hectic world.

Donnellan's brilliant stroke is to keep the key characters on stage whenever they are being spoken of by others. Thus, they visibly haunt their lovers and obsessed enemies. Most poignantly, the sense of imminent loss is heightened as Jonny Phillip's Iago starts besmirching Desdemona's reputation while we see her, standing on one of the gun crates like a makeshift pedestal, still luminously beautiful, as if pictured in her husband's memory. This also makes one think of Hermione's statue in The Winter's Tale (the late romance Donnellan staged with the Maly) even as one knows that, tragically, the marital jealously will be fatal here, with no magical resurrection.

Phillips' Iago is, meanwhile like some decimating Prospero, armed with a swagger stick instead of a wand. When he soliloquises, plotting out his drama of destruction, his victims stand around him impotently suspended in time and - in this ironically defenceless, open plan realm - he has only to conceive of dropping Desdemona's handkerchief into Cassio's hands, then reach over and, hey presto, it is done.

The production has its weak points. There are some reductive textual cuts and Anozie can sound vocally lightweight, skimming over certain richly lyrical lines and visceral curves. Inversely, Phillips slightly overdoes the vibrato and menacing, slow delivery of his speeches, though it does create an intense, dream like atmosphere. His emotional ambiguity is most intriguing, for you are never quite sure if he is acting or actually quivering with regret as he hesitates in his tête-á-têtes with Othello. Moreover, his sudden leap forward with gaping, silent mouth, in reaction to Othello's suicide, might be morbid ecstasy or suppressed love, surfacing too late.

Physically, both the male leads are riveting. Skeletally gaunt and unshaven, Phillips looks like a desert rat (both animal and military) and a viper (spitting as if his mouth tastes poisonous). In contrast, Anozie is a mountain of a man. That's to say, touching when he is a gentle giant with Martin's Desdemona, who stands on tiptoes to kiss him, and horrifying when he strangles her, lifting her above his head with her legs thrashing against his waist. Martin is herself outstanding, still girlish and tragically confident that her husband's love (unlike her father's) is reliable. Jaye Griffith's black Emilia becomes profoundly moving as well, lounging with Desdemona on her bed like a tender big sister, then proving ferociously devoted and dying by her side. All in all, this is an ensemble realising a directorial vision that is full of insights. Well worth catching. Kate Bassett, Independent on Sunday. 21 November 2004
Nonso Anozie is only 25, but his powerful and subtle Othello in Declan Donnellan's thrilling Cheek by Jowl production is the greatest account of this towering role since Olivier played it 40 years ago. This is the tragedy of a man who loses himself, his majesty, his reason for living. The more he is entangled by Jonny Phillips' wolfish Iago (a hideously exciting performance), the more he clings to what he things is his self control. The tragedy springs from the pathetic contracts between his gullibility and his knife-edge effort to remain dignified and reasonable. This is something he has clearly had to learn as an outsider in a sophisticated world. The setting is an almost bare oblong space, with audience on each side. In other hands this, and having characters on stage when they are spoken about, would seem like modernist tricks; here they add an extra dimension. Caroline Martin's Desdemona is very young but poised, dignified and confident; she can hold her own against Othello and her scenes with Jaye Griffith's spirited, shrewd Emilia have a sense of heartbreaking intimacy. The long final scene is the most devastating I can remember. This magnificent production runs only until December 4. Why? John Peters, Sunday Times. 21 November 2004
Cheek by Jowl has been described by Time Magazine as one of the 10 great theatre companies in the world and it earns rave reviews both at home and abroad. It is usually my melancholy duty to enter a dissenting voice.

Yet my usual reservations were swept away by this knockout Othello. It is one of the most thrilling, emotionally shattering productions of the tragedy you are ever likely to witness.

As usual, Nick Ormerod's design is virtually non existent, consisting of nothing more than five wooden ammunition boxes that also serve as the fateful marriage bed when covered in rich draperies. Has a designer ever received so much acclaim for doing so little?

Donnellan's modern dress production, staged with the audiences seated on either side of an acting area that runs the whole impressive width of the Riverside auditorium, is also full of his trademark flourishes.

Those not required in a scene often remain on stage, frozen like statues, while it is taking place. In fights, an actor will thrust a dagger into thin air and someone standing at the other end of the stage will die as a consequence. The acting too, has its rough edges.

Yet somehow none of this matters. Donnellan and his company penetrate the heart of the play, capturing its thriller-like pace, psychological precision and edge of your seat dramatic intensity. I don't think I have ever seen the great last act more powerfully and movingly played.

Again and again Donnellan provides illuminating details that bring the play to life, the embarrassment of the other Venetian senators at the vile fold of Brabantio's bottled up racism, for instance, or the creepy solicitude with which Iago proffers a bucket for Cassio to be sick in after wrecking his career.

But at the heart of this production is the most plausible and touching account of the marriage of Othello and Desdemona I have ever seen, two loving, trusting innocents abroad in a wicked world.

Nonso Anozie's moor is a dignified giant of a man, slow to rouse, terrifying when he cracks and delivering the verse with superb feeling and clarity.

At first, as Iago so cunningly lures him toward the green eyed monster of jealously, I feared the actor was giving too restrained a performance. We expect our Othellos to tear a passion to tatters. But the result is that when anger, violence and despair suddenly break through his heroically maintained fa?ade of calm, the effect is devastating.

Caroline Martin is a tiny, pitifully vulnerable Desdemona who barely reaches her husband's shoulder and cannot get her arms around his waist. There is a lovely warmth, mischief and open hearted sexuality about her and the scenes in which Othello first treats her like a cheap whore then strangles her as if she were a rag doll in his hands are almost too painful to watch. Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph. 17 November 2004
When a Good Man is a Fool

This production is a reminder of what all the fuss is about. About Shakespeare. It is direct, clear intense and vivid. It has some superb acting, some extraordinarily expressive staging, created by the movement of the actors and a relentless drive towards that terrible, aching conclusion.

Othello can be infuriating. The awful, drawn out action as we watch Iago's elaborate plot unfold and Othello's monumental foolishness slowly entrap him and Desdemona, can provoke that killer response to all the grandly simple tragedies, "Just get over it!"

But Declan Donnellan's production grabs attention from its terrific opening scene, in which the politicians of Venice, the real villains here, can scarcely tear themselves away from their affairs of state to pay attention to what for them is merely an irrelevant great love.

It plays the series of agonising confrontations of the middle acts an intensity and violence of emotion that carries us through to the stillness of the bedroom scenes that lead to the murder of Desdemona.

These, including a wonderfully intimate almost happy scene of self assertion and release between Caroline Martin's sexy, feisty Desdemona and Jaye Griffith's terrific black and cool Amelia, are a reminder of what Shakespeare certainly knew; that time spent setting it all up is never wasted if you have a great ending.

The momentum of this production carries on into the resolution scene after the murder/suicide. The two characters we care about are dead but we need the explanations.

At the end the politicians take over again and all that messy passion is consigned away in a dispatch back to the centre of their empire, like a brief military report of a moving human story sent from Baghdad back to Washington.

Nonso Anozie is a superb Othello, naïve, wide-eyed, completely unaware of the fear that his bodily power and his back otherness instil in the sleazily sophisticated apparatchiks who creep fearfully around him but who in the end destroy him.

He does the famous, "speak of me as I am", speech with an innocence that is heart rending. As if a slave like him could ever explain himself to these smooth talking imperialist bastards.

Jonny Phillip's Iago is a rat-like villain, but his thirst for revenge is based in real passion and he too is an outsider, excluded from power with a jealously of his own, fearful about his hold over his wife Amelia and therefore violent to her and vicious towards the black devil that he sees, rightly, as her racial ally.

This is great production that reworks a difficult old play in an urgent and modern way. John McCallum, The Australian. 9 August 2004
Donnellan, The Man who Loves Actors

Declan Donnellan's real passion is for actors. You might say that, for a director, that's par for the course. But it's by no means guaranteed these days, where the job, a relatively recent development, is often practised by people more anxious about their egos than wonder-working. For Donnellan, it's understood: the theatre is primarily for actors. "Actors," he says, "are the most fundamental element in the theatrical process."

Were you to ask him to talk about Shakespeare, that worshipped author, venerated and unceasingly studied and performed, and about the Othello that he is producing in Paris at the moment, he would stop you immediately, before even talking about the play, to sing the praises of the actor who plays the Moor of Venice: Nonso Anozie, British, of Nigerian origin. "He just is Othello!" Right. That is to say? "It's impossible to describe. I hate adjectives like I hate 'ideas'. Let's just say it's like this: he's inspired me, and there's nothing more precious for a director than to be inspired by the people he works with."

Evidently Declan Donnellan is also inspired by his texts: the greatest, most sumptuous texts if possible, that is to say those capable of producing a kind of intoxication, those which invite the actors and the public to what he calls a "communion". A term which is hardly surprising coming from this man who, when talking of the drama, willingly uses religious metaphors, defining the theatre as "a sacrament" which "brings him peace". A strange and paradoxical description, it might be said, when you learn how strongly he regards his job as a risky one "since a production is never definitive, it's always a 'work in progress'. Theatre is a living art, right? So, it changes every day."

This Englishman, of Irish origin, gave up a career as a lawyer. It was indisputably a good decision. Especially if you believe, for example, the great Peter Brook ? little suspected of laziness or sycophancy ? who commented, in 1991, about his production of Shakespeare's As You Like It, that: "Of all the versions of this play that I have seen, Declan Donnellan's is by far the best. A celebration for the spirit!"

Ah, Shakespeare! Donnellan will have devoted his career to him. Nearly one season in two, since his first Othello in 1982, Donnellan, co-founder in 2002 of the Academy of the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, has produced one play (and sometimes operas, notably Falstaff with Claudio Abbado in 2001) by the Elizabethan: Macbeth, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest and that Twelfth Night that we saw recently with a company of extraordinary Russian actors. Shakespeare, clearly, is the man. But also plays by other word-magicians, the great lyrical voices: Sophocles, Calderon, and also Michel de Ghelderode or Tony Kushner. And the French playwrights: a Cid which had huge success and an Andromaque of which this modest man is particularly proud: "Imagine, an English premiere, after three hundred and fifty years!" Musset, as well, with "On ne badine pas avec l'amour" which he translated himself.

Donnellan has things to say about the classical repertoire. But exegesis is not his first concern. "Shakespeare," he considers, "was first of all an actor who wrote plays. Like Moliere." Donnellan has found happiness in Russia, a land which returns the love he feels for it; he is an Associate Director of the Russian Theatre Confederation. His productions of Pushkin's Boris Goudanov and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet at the Bolshoi were hailed with that generous fervour so characteristic of the Slav. "Well, yes, I suppose I'm liked in Russia." The Russian soul, twinned with the Irish soul? Not exactly; in any case, surely not for sentimental reasons, that psychological disposition that Donnellan hates so much. "But with the Russians there is," he says, "this inclination for the group. That can be dangerous sometimes but in the theatre it's so precious. The actors, the company, the Russians understand that straight away, which isn't always the case with the English and the French."

Still this idea of a group. "The job of a director is to respect individuals and help the actors to work together." A cheering point of view that Declan Donnellan has developed into a book, The Actor and the Target... which deals with the breath, the target, patience, modesty and attention. Like an allusion to Herrigel's famous little book, Zen and the Art of Archery which, for simple reasons of efficiency, exalts those virtues which seem to have influenced this great director.

Invitation to Ecstasy

What theatrical joy! After seeing Declan Donnellan's production of Othello, you are exhausted, ravished, you might even have wished that the enchantment would last longer, that time stood still, as Desdemona sighs, "Kill me tomorrow/ Let me live tonight". The exceptional splendour of this spectacle has several causes. The author, first of all, Shakespeare, to whom this stubborn director returns tirelessly, and this work which is perhaps, according to the director, "the greatest tragedy every written".

And then there is the traverse staging (the stage in the middle, surrounded by audience), giving the production an air of ceremony - which is not a synonym for boredom, but an invitation to ecstasy and communal jubilation. And finally, the essential: the actors.

They are Donnellan's first concern, before the set (non-existent, in this case) or the costumes. They are extraordinary: Nonso Anozie, a massive and fragile Othello, Caroline Martin, an impressive Desdemona, or Jonny Philips, who portrays a classic Iago. I should list them all. But what does it matter, as Donnellan, as has always been his taste, in spite of his attention to each, prefers what we call a company.

How well that functions, and with what efficacity! What mastery in this extreme, immoderate, dangerous play. Donnellan has got the hang of a problematic balance: to make the most accomplished artifice seem natural, to express the most extreme violence and grief, affectations and the baldest prose. On stage they cry, they groan, they curse, they weep tears that "soften the stones", without ever resorting to the hysteria or epileptic apings which are the temptations of such a text. Even the exemplary, long and painful denouement is managed magnificently here, after a wisely and musically orchestrated crescendo.

One regret, perhaps. The surtitles are hesitant and often approximate. Take one precaution: to read, if not to learn, the text before you hear it, so that the story won't be, as the great William says, "left unknown like mud". Interview and review. Unattributed, translated by Bridget Collin, Le Figaro. 3 April 2004