Set against the backdrop of its breathtaking Norman castle, Stafford's open-air Shakespeare festival has become an institution over the last 25 years. Although the programme has tended towards comedy in recent years, such a dramatic setting seems the perfect place to stage one of the Bard's darkest tragedies.
The setting for this particular production, the first for this very talented creative team, was the 1950's, when the British army was based in Cyprus. The set reflects Mediterranean village life beautifully, complete with it's own 2-storey house, cafe with its own jukebox and beach. The atmosphere is further enhanced by a wonderful lighting plot, which incorporates the imposing facade of the castle itself, and the tasteful and perfectly judged use of onstage actor-musicians, who performed contemporary pop songs and Venetian love ballads, usually between scenes, allowing the story to flow effortlessly. Despite a running time of nearly three hours, it doesn't once feel slow paced or laboured.
At the heart of this compelling production, however, is a myriad of powerful yet nuanced performances, even from the supporting characters. Niall Costigan's Iago was subtle in its intrigue and yet brutally immoral, especially when inviting the audience to be co-conspirator, without any attempt at justification as to his reasoning - his own convictions are enough. Howard Chadwick and James Lawrence as Brabantio and Cassio respectively were also particularly convincing. Whereas Desdemona has often been played as the victimised innocent who meekly submits to the hand she has been dealt, Madeleine Leslay's portrayal was full of life, vigour and love, and just before the moment of her death, her desperation to cling to life made her demise all the more tragic.
Commanding the stage and the audiences attention, Oliver Wilson's Othello was simply sublime. His transformation from the beloved general to the suspicious and hateful man was mesmerising, and seemed to come more from within than from the poisonous whisperings of Iago, and by the end his anguish was so great, his death felt like a release.
Everything about this production comes together beautifully, and despite being a huge departure from recent years, I would be thrilled to see more of Shakespeare's tragedies here, handled with the same deftness as this triumphant production. Go and see it while you can.
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