Saturday 17 March 2018

Theatre: Miss this riveting 'Othello' at your peril

Brilliant direction, stars and ensemble combine to deliver magnificent theatre

Gwen Taylor and Ernest Perry Jr in Driving Miss Daisy at the Gaiety Theatre.
Gwen Taylor and Ernest Perry Jr in Driving Miss Daisy at the Gaiety Theatre.
The contemporary version of Othello playing at The Abbey.

Emer O'Kelly

It's not often that one word is enough to describe a production of a play. But with Joe Dowling's new production of Othello for the Abbey, that word is "breathtaking". It matches any Shakespeare production I have seen anywhere, and surpasses most of them.

"Ticking the boxes" doesn't always work on stage: it can stultify a work. But Dowling has brought together a mesmeric ensemble cast, has inspired them with all the violent, complex passions of arguably the world's greatest study of jealousy and betrayal, and still has managed to imbue them with a reverence and respect for the language and spirit of the text. No games are played with Shakespeare's spirit, but the production is thrillingly for our time. The result is riveting theatre that is also high art. Why? Because they all know what they're doing.

Nothing is ignored, from the visible change of climatic mood when the action switches from the labyrinthine darkness of Venetian alleyways to the sun-dappled courtyards of Cyprus; to the raffishness of off-duty drunken soldiers indulging in clumsy attempts at local dances, and a chilling fight scene that makes you wince as you feel the broken jaws and sliced foreheads.

And then there are the stars; Peter Macon as Othello, a massively built American Shakespeare veteran with a magnificent voice who has worked with Dowling in Minneapolis, and ranges through impetuous innocence into helpless, bull-like brutality; the chameleon Marty Rea as a stringy, lounging Iago, bespectacled and nerd-like, as he weaves his viper-ish toils around the men and women he sees as his natural enemies; and Rebecca O'Mara as a Desdemona who combines helpless bewilderment with a certain calculating sophistication: she has, after all, eloped with the ultimate outsider: black, foreign, and a soldier beneath her class despite his military success.

The support is equally good, with a career best from Karen Ardiff as Emilia, a perfectly distraught Brabantio coping with his daughter's defection from Peter Gowen; an essentially decent rough diamond Cassio from Barry John O'Connor; and a spectacularly funny Bianca from Liz Fitzgibbon, the quintessential "whore with a heart of gold."

The action is designed in a platform set by Riccardo Hernandez, hemmed into an apron-effect stage with audience on either side; it's open and claustrophobic together, and perfectly encases even James Cosgrave's fight scenes as well as David Bolger's movement patterns. Sinead McKenna's lighting changes for every nuance and mood, and Joan O'Clery's under-stated costumes are a foil for the actors rather than a distraction.

Happy 400th, Mr Shakespeare: Ireland's National Theatre has done you proud. The rest of you: see it, see it, see it.

Driving Miss Daisy drips with awards, for the film, and for the original stage play. The author, Alfred Uhry, is a phenomenally successful writer. So it must be the production; because the Irish premiere of the play, produced by Pat Moylan and Breda Cashe at the Gaiety in Dublin is wearisome, creaky, and quite frankly, dreary.

Further narrowing takes us down another notch: the performances by Ernest Perry Jr and Simon Delaney are excellent. That's two-thirds of the cast. So we're down to the final third, and the direction. They are the responsibility of Gwen Taylor as the titular Miss Daisy, and John P Kelly as director.

The play is the microcosmic history of Atlanta, Georgia from the 1940s to the 1970s, through the lens of a single relationship. So that makes Uhry a sort of modern-day Margaret Mitchell (who did the same thing for the city and its environs in Gone With the Wind). Except that Uhry's characters are more believable and a great deal more pleasant.

Miss Daisy is a well-off Jewish widow in her 70s when her son Boolie decides (justifiably) that she's a danger to herself and others when she's behind the wheel of a car. The answer is Hoke Colburn, who becomes the sceptical old woman's chauffeur, friend and minder for the next quarter century, and sees them both through hate crimes against Judaism and the rise of the Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King, in a society riven with racial fear and hatred.

The play should be funny, sharp, and wise. But under Kelly's direction the humour is laboured and obvious, the political inferences platitudinous, and the chemistry between the spirited white woman and the ageing black man non- existent. That's definitely not the fault of Perry: it's down to Taylor, whose Miss Daisy is not so much one-dimensional as unreal, her "ageing process" bouncing backwards and forwards in physicality, and utterly lacking in the spiky charm which gives warmth to her relationship with her exasperated son, so well captured by Simon Delaney.

And despite a ridiculously elaborate naturalistic interior set by Kate Moylan, the key element, the car's interior, is represented by a bench in a square of light, which Miss Daisy walks in and out of, without even an attempt to give the impression of climbing in and out of a car.

This was rather tatty and superficial.

The result is riveting theatre that is also high art. Why? Because they all know what they're doing.

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