It is rare we see someone lose themselves completely in a performance but the Abbey’s version of Shakespeare’s beloved Othello, sees the lead character bear his soul on stage.
You may never have heard his name before, but American Peter Macon is an incredible talent – an actor who devours the role of Othello, ‘The Moor’ general who falls for and marries the white, privileged daughter of the Venetian establishment, Desdemona.
Emmy-award winning Macon plays the role of the heroic warrior, driven mad by jealousy caused by the villianous Iago.
But the passion and familiarity of the role is not new to the Broadway veteran, who headlined the Colorado Shakespeare Festival as Othello last year.
In fact Macon wears the character like a familiar coat because he has reprised the role on numerous occasions. In 2008 and 2014, also.
And as he appears to us, a powerful, black man, with a notably booming voice and larger than life character, it is all the more deplorable to watch this admirable figure’s downfall.
In truth, there never was and never could be anyone on stage to match Macon in this version of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy.
If ever a role was designed for an actor, Othello was made for Macon – and that’s why the play is a joy to watch. And the two hours and 50 minutes never seems to drag.
Iago, played by Irish Times best theatre actor of 2015, Marty Rea, is also a powerful tour-de-force on stage.
He envelopes sinister and calculating and combines these menacing qualities with wit and comedy.
For those who are lucky enough to get a seat on one of the rows either side on the stage – an attempt to draw the audience farther in to the play, they had also better beware Iago.
As well as becoming close-up witnesses to the death, destruction and madness, played out before them, at least one member of the audience gets a shock when Rea screams startlingly in to the prime seats.
On the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, director Joe Dowling offers us what is truly an outstanding Othello.
The octagon shaped stage, atop the theatre’s traditional stage – is where most of the action, the comedy and drama unfolds.
From the outset we are introduced to Iago, shrouded in darkness and calling accusations from behind a wall about Desdemona’s affair to her father, Brabanzio, a senator. The subtly of his appearance ought warn us of his dark side, yet to be revealed.
We are then showed the timelessness of Shakespeare as a writer as he either directly or indirectly tackles racial issues as long ago as 1603, as Othello argues for his right to love Desdemona, for no other reason than love.
Today, we do not know if ‘the Moor’ was a darker haired character in Shakespeare’s version of the classic – or if he was indeed an African, or Islamic African male.
The distinction was never quite clear – but today the character is perhaps a paragon of black equality in a white, male-dominated world.
Othello is set against the backdrop of the wars between Venice and Turkey that raged in the latter part of the 16th century.
Cyprus, the setting for most of the play, was a Venetian outpost attacked by the Turks in 1570 and conquered the following year.
With irony as battles seem to draw to a close, this is when Othello’s blossoming love affair with his young wife, Desdemona (Rebecca O’Mara) seems to sour, thanks to the incessant and calculating plot created by Iago – a man determined to dethrone Othello from his powerful position.
O’Mara injects innocence, combined with steeliness in to her portrayal of the famous beauty, who has shunned societal expectations by marrying ‘The Moor.’.
Moments of tenderness between Macon and O’Mara are touching and at times witty, as we see the playfulness between the pair and the attempts by the fairer sex to overpower this powerful man with charm, to get her way.
This is the first version of Othello we have witnessed where Irish regional accents are used to unusual yet clever effect. From Rea’s Belfast lilt – which is used to perfect the menacing qualities of Iago, to the urban Dublin brogue of Bianca – the classic ‘whore’ with a heart, effected by Liz Fitzgibbon.
Fitzgibbon, who plays Casio’s (Barry John O’Connor) lover and Karen Ardiff (Emilia) Iago’s unloved and much-suffering wife, are noticeable in their support roles for enticing takes on their characters.
In particular, Ardiff is a shining light, whose defiance and heroism shines through during one of the most emotional scenes in the play, at the death bed of Desdemona.
If you have a dry eye at the end of this play, after witnessing tragic Desdemona and Othello’s demise, the spirit of Shakespeare has not captured you and if not, perhaps you’re just a fan of the great man’s work.
But for us, the Abbey’s Othello was simply, magnificent and we hope to see Macon’s return. We advise, see this play before its run ends.
Othello is showing at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until June 11.