The Bard still has the power to amaze
It was the death scene that finally did it. Long, brutal and violent I glanced around the audience as Othello writhed on the bed with Desdemona, choking the life from his wife in a jealous fury.
Some people were literally on the edge of their seats, others had their hands to their mouths. You could hear a pin drop.
Proof, if any were needed, that a good Shakespeare production can be as powerful and as potent today as it was when first performed.
And make no mistake, this is a very good production, expertly staged, tightly acted and beautifully realised by Chester Performs.
Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre is now in its fourth season, presenting picnic theatre in the round in the heart of Chester.
Also on the bill this year are productions of Cyrano de Bergerac and a Midsummer Night’s Dream but it is Othello, the darkest, most claustrophobic of the Bard’s plays, which is perhaps the most intriguing with its issues of race, gender and jealousy.
Why does Iago act as he does? Why does Othello fall so readily for his lies?
And will people really come to eat, drink and watch a Shakespearean tragedy in a small, open air theatre in the middle of the day? From the evidence of last Saturday afternoon the answer is yes.
It was a varied house ranging from families with flasks, couples with champagne and even a hen party.
What they got was an experience of pure theatre, intimate, exciting and accessible.
Simon Coombs as Othello is, at first sight, a little young for the role; the Moor is afterall supposed to be a seasoned soldier. But what Coombs lacks in years he makes up for in terms of his handling of the language. His delivery was perfect, his understanding of its complexities impressive. There was no lack of power or passion and the scene where he confronts his wife about her supposed adultery crackled with energy and foreboding.
In truth, though, the play belongs to Othello’s tormentor and ensign, Iago.
It’s a part played by Graham O’Mara with chilling subtlety. His Iago is no caricature, though, but a restrained study in low key malevolence.
And so to that death scene where Othello first strangles his wife and then smothers her. It is graphic, genuinely shocking and superbly played by both Coombs and Rebecca Smith-Williams as a strong and fesity Desdemona .
Mention must also be made of the strong supporting cast from Leon Scott’s bumbling Roderigo to Katherine Toy who plays Iago’s ill-used wife Emilia with just the right anount of cynicism and Samuel Collins who, as Cassio, gives an expert rendition of a drunkard.
Does Iago do what he does out of jealousy or hatred? Or does he destroy so many peoples’ lives simply because he can? We don’t know and this lack of clear motivation makes the play all the more disturbing.
But this tragedy of “one that loved not wisely but too well” is theatre at its best.