Shakespeare's Chemistry Lesson; n&dOthello National Theatre, London Director: Sam Mendes Starring: David Harewood, Simon Russell Beale Running Time: 3 Hrs 30 Mins ***** an Enemy of the People National Theatre, London Director: Trevor Nunn Starring: Ian McKellen, Stephen Moore Running Time: 3 Hrs

Article excerpt

Byline: georgina brown

Othello is Shakespeare's most scorching, most tempest-tossed and most seldom staged tragedy. In modern times the politically correct and racially sensitive have got so queasy about staging Othello that our major companies have played it safe and stuck to Lear and Hamlet. While theatre-goers have cheerfully gone colour-blind and even gender-blind (with Fiona Shaw's Richard II and Kathryn Hunter's Lear), we aren't yet sufficiently reconstructed or relaxed to watch a white actor play the Moor. And, Moor's the pity, directors have consistently failed to find a black actor of the calibre the role demands.

David Harewood isn't a great Othello, but he is staggeringly persuasive. His satin-skinned blackness, which so clearly isolates him in this puny, pukka white world, terrif-ically heightens the chemistry between him and Claire Skinner's marvellous and very, very pale Desdemona.

Initially, Othello is so smug about his bride, so cool and cocky about his new status, he can ride the appalling abuse poured on him by Desdemona's father when the latter discovers the two have married without his knowledge.

But when the villainous Iago suggests that Desdemona regrets `betraying' her race and is unfaithful, Othello's gnawing sense of being `other' becomes blindingly clear. And, when he lashes out in grief, passion and fury, and suffocates his wife, Harewood's performance is outstanding.

The perpetrator of all this misery and tragedy is Simon Russell Beale. He is in awesome form as a terrifyingly malevolent Iago, a bulbous, toxic pustule of a man, swollen and deformed by his own evil and never more vile than when he affects blank, insolent guilessness.

Director Sam Mendes builds atmosphere with all the best film noir effects - rain lashes, the sun scalds, jazz music floats in the darkness - which fits perfectly with the Thirties militaristic background he's given the piece. …