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Othello (1990)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Othello (1990)
For Theatre Night, BBC, tx. 23/6/1990, 205 mins, colour
DirectorTrevor Nunn
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Primetime Television
ProducerGreg Smith
AdaptationDavid Myerscough-Jones, Brian Sykes
DesignerBob Crowley
MusicGuy Woolfenden

Cast: Willard White (Othello); Ian McKellen (Iago); Imogen Stubbs (Desdemona); Zoë Wanamaker (Emilia); Sean Baker (Cassio); Michael Grandage (Roderigo)

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Jealous at the promotion of the Moorish general Othello, Iago plots to secure his downfall by provoking him into believing his wife Desdemona is being unfaithful.

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The previous television adaptation of a Trevor Nunn-directed Royal Shakespeare Company stage production, Macbeth (ITV, 1979) was widely regarded as one of the finest screen Shakespeares ever. Expectations for this broadcast were accordingly sky-high - but were generally met by a production that holds a very distinguished place amongst filmed Othellos, and is arguably its most successful television translation.

It was sourced from an award-winning 1989 production, updated to the US Civil War (though only in terms of sets, costumes and props: the dialogue remained firmly tied to Venice and Cyprus). Its great strength on both stage and screen was the beautifully achieved chemistry between the four leads. Despite the star billing and predictably superb performance (a spellbinding blend of stiff-backed military bearing and burning self-righteous hatred that almost but never quite topples into outright mania, largely thanks to his stressing of the idea that Iago is himself a victim of jealousy, a notion that's in the text but not often explored), Ian McKellen never allows himself to upstage the others.

The Jamaican-born Willard White, primarily an opera bass-baritone, brings a wonderfully burnished voice to the title role, and brings out the sheer beauty of Othello's soliloquies more successfully than anyone since Paul Robeson, an actor-singer of similar gifts. Like Iago, he's a military man first and foremost, normally keen to maintain discipline at all times. This makes his subsequent enslavement to his own jealousy that much harder to bear, not least because it reveals the character's desperate vulnerability that arises from his outsider status. Imogen Stubbs is a moving Desdemona, catching both her innocent vulnerability and her natural curiosity, and Zoë Wanamaker is an unusually complex Emilia - especially in her scenes with her husband Iago, which crackle with sexual electricity of a kind generally avoided by more conventional stagings of the play.

Nunn directed this television version himself and, in contrast to Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra (ITV, 1974), favours contemplative medium shots over extreme close-ups. Aside from a few striking touches such as the use of moving point-of-view shots in a confrontation scene between Othello and Desdemona, little attempt is made to hide the fact that this is a filmed stage production - entirely excusable given that Nunn's stated purpose was to preserve the latter for posterity. Running at 205 minutes, the text is presented almost complete, with only the scene with Cassio and the clown removed in its entirety.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Othello (1981)
Othello (2001)
McKellen, Ian (1939-)
Wanamaker, Zoë (1949-)
Othello On Screen