A SCHEMING manipulator torments a mighty warlord into murdering his wife in a raging fit of jealousy.

Doesn’t exactly sound like the ideal way to spend a balmy summer’s evening with a nice picnic in one of the most beautiful spots in Chester, does it?

Well, this didn’t seem to be the view of the crowds who came out in exceptional numbers for the opening night of William Shakespeare’s Othello in the Grosvenor Park on Friday.

The Hollywood blockbusters currently dominating the nation’s cinema screens would have been delighted with this kind of turn-out as audience members continued to arrive in desperate search of increasingly rare spare places even after the production had got under way.

By the time everyone had settled in, there wasn’t an empty seat to be seen which was an instant vindication of the decision to try out Shakespearean tragedy for the first time in the extraordinary Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre project.

Chester Performs have scheduled only 11 performances of this play to see how the city’s summer theatre-goers will respond to something a little heavier than the comedic fare upon which the project has built its reputation.

That balance may have to change in future years if this kind of capacity crowd becomes the norm for the rest of Othello ’s run - which would be a real triumph for the organisers bearing in mind the other two of this year’s offerings,  A Midsummer Night’s Dream and  Cyrano De Bergerac, are already box office hits.

As one has come to expect from director Alex Clifton, this production was expertly staged with a number of imaginative visual flourishes - a silent Desdemona (Rebecca Smith-Williams) in a veiled carriage during the opening scenes; a wordless circle of judges in Othello’s bedchamber seemingly already passing judgment on the Moor immediately before his final fateful encounter with his doomed wife.

Simon Coombs was both fascinating and frustrating as Othello. In truth, he seemed too young for the role and struggled to exude the air of authority one has come to associate with its portrayal.

However, he brought a genuinely regal bearing to the part and handled both the poetry and the passion of the language with consummate ease.

And he had the skill to emphasise a certain callow naivety with his petulant reactions to accusations of Desdemona’s infidelity and his youthful appearance provided a convincing explanation for the way he is so easily persuaded of his wife’s betrayal by the duplicitous Iago.

The Moor’s tormentor was brilliantly under-played by Graham O’Mara. His Iago came across as someone irritated by his subservient position in life who decides to make everyone around him a pawn in his deadly game almost as a diversion for his own amusement.

At all times O’Mara avoided the pitfalls of turning the character either into a pantomime villain or a nudge-nudge wink-wink ally of the audience. It was a subtle portrayal which managed to dominate the production without overbalancing it.

 

The scene which is likely to divide opinion is the crucial moment when the now psychotic Othello carries out his lethal attack on Desdemona.

Clifton takes the daring approach of prolonging her demise so the killer and his victim writh around on the bed for what seems like an eternity, provoking one or two chuckles from certain audience members.

In fact, though, the longer this goes on, the more chilling it becomes as we are spared no visceral detail of just how difficult it must be to strangle a human being. It is, in the end, genuinely shocking.

Half way through its fourth season, Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre has succeeded in proving there is still a substantial audience for professional theatre in the Chester area.

Now it has also proven it can take on one of the darkest works in the Shakespearean canon and still tap into that desire for live performance.

Having established itself so comprehensively locally, there is little doubt the reputation of GPOAT will continue to grow on the national arts scene.

Othello can be seen until August 23 while GPOAT continues until August 25. Call 0845 241 7868 or visit www.grosvenorparkopenairtheatre.co.uk for details of performances of this as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cyrano De Bergerac .