IT is surely a piece of dream casting by the Crucible to pair Clarke Peters and Dominic West from the acclaimed American crime series The Wire as Othello and Iago, although when the notion is put to them it merely elicits chortling banter.
It seems particularly so because both actors have strong connections with Sheffield. West grew up in this neck of the woods and the American-born Peters counts his time in the Eighties working at the Crucible as hugely influential on his career.
So how much did coming to Sheffield play in their decision to accept director Daniel Evans’ offer? “It was hugely significant for me,” says West. “I have three sisters living here and when our mum died we sold the house we grew up in in Grindleford. It felt like my genuine home really and I instantly felt adrift. It meant a lot to me to come back here because I had lost any reason to return otherwise.
“Apart from being with Clarke, another reason is I think the theatre is wonderful,” says the actor who previously appeared in Michael Grandage’s production of The Country Wife in 2000.
Clarke Peters made his mark at the theatre performing in the award-winning musical Carmen Jones in 1980 and was then given the opportunity to direct, a production of James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, which pointed him in the direction of developing his great hit, Five Guys Named Moe.
Long based in Britain, his career has been extraordinarily varied on both sides of the Atlantic (two weeks after the run of Othello finishes he goes back to New Orleans to start on the third series of Tremé written by The Wire creator David Simon). Some classical theatre, but not much of the Bard.
“Apart from Othello a few years ago I haven’t done any Shakespeare,” he agrees. “I feel it’s a deficiency in rehearsals when everyone is referring to the classics and I feel like telling them, ‘just speak English’. Someone will say, ‘don’t you think this is like when Pericles does so and so’ and I will have to say, I don’t know, I would rather hear how it refers to the human condition than other classics.”
Presumably he is not referring to his current director. “Oh, Daniel has his moments,” he says with an enigmatic smile worthy of The Wire’s Lester Freamon. “But being an actor he understands when that can be a help. He has the experience of being directed himself and directing actors.”
The cast arrived in Sheffield this week after beginning rehearsals in London while Dominic West completed his run in Butley in the West End. Since finishing at the weekend he has adopted a No 1 cut very different from that of the tousled academic in Simon Gray’s play (similar to the curly mop he had as serial killer Fred West on TV this week) because it would make Iago “more soldierly”.
The actor was drawn to both the play and the character. “I have loved Othello since I studied it for A-level, it’s probably the most accessible Shakespeare. It’s such a male play. It’s about all the things liable to go wrong when men deny the female,” he says.
“I seem to have been playing nothing but villains lately and Iago is the greatest villain of them all so I thought I might as well top it off.”
While Peters will portray Othello as an African, West has chosen to give Iago a Sheffield accent.
“The difficulty with Iago is in making him more than just a villain,” he explains. “Everyone calls him honest and straightforward and driven and what you see is what you get. I rightly or wrongly think a Sheffield accent would give him a sense of honesty. In advertising they use a Scottish accent when they want to sell in something like banking and a Yorkshire accent when they want to convey something straightforward.
“If I did it in my own accent, people wouldn’t believe a thing,” says the old Etonian, citing the character of Hector in the recent BBC series, The Hour, whose posh and suave demeanour meant he was instantly judged as shifty and shallow.
Presumably, West had to eliminate any traces of Sheffield from his accent when he arrived at Eton. “My first great role,” he chuckles. And then undo it again when he came home for the holidays? “That was even more of a nightmare, I was all over the shop.”
The controversial ITV drama Appropriate Adult may have brought him some flak (not least from his own family) but playing Fred West was useful preparation for Iago. “It provided a real insight into evil,” he says and he came to see a number of similarities. “Fred West was someone everyone thought was a good bloke. He would come and mend your tap and did a lot for the community and no-one saw this darker side.”
West does not look the kind of actor who stays in character off stage and screen. “I can’t take them home, that’s the one place I can get away. Anyway, I have young children so there’s no chance of that happening.”
Othello starts previewing at the Crucible from next Thursday, September 15, and runs until October 15.