Some Thoughts: Othello

I had the opportunity to see Playing Shakespeare’s Othello at the Globe, their educational performance that is being presented for free to secondary schools in London. Though I feel like I’ve seen about a hundred Othellos recently, this production illuminated some things in interesting ways that seem worth highlighting.

Othello himself (played by the preposterously handsome and very talented Lloyd Everitt) is presented as more explicitly foreign than I’ve previously scene: he speaks with what I believe is a West Indian accent, though I’m not entirely sure. While quoting Othello in the scene before we’ve actually met him, Iago (Jamie Beamish, whose magnetic and mercurial Iago’s finest hour is when he extravagantly decries honesty in favor of wisdom in order to regain Othello’s trust) imitates this accent, leaving us unsure until the next scene if this is actually a trait of his, or just exaggerated racism on Iago’s part. In the text, Othello is of course specified as being not only racially other, but foreign as well– he’s not just a black Venetian. The accent is a useful reminder of this double difference, and draws attention to Iago’s many references to Othello perhaps not being acquainted with the customs of the country… which helps make Othello’s belief in Iago’s lies still more credible. 

The setting is World War I, which some people are probably totally sick of this year, but I think works really well for the play. It allows for the explicitly military setting that I’m increasingly viewing as an essential element of the play, along with rigidly divided and traditionally signified class differences that are equally important and sometimes a little too blurred in a contemporary setting. 

The play is only an hour and 50 minutes with no interval, and some of the heaviest cuts are to Desdemona’s speeches, including entirely excising her speech about following Othello to the wars. Obviously, I am usually hugely opposed to the all-too-common impulse to cut female characters’ lines just because they don’t seem very important (they are!!!), but in this case, it has a really interesting effect that I definitely didn’t hate. Stripped of most of her speech at the beginning of the play, Desdemona (Bethan Cullinane) becomes much more of a cypher, and it then becomes strangely easier to believe in Othello’s suspicion because she is so constantly cheerful, polite, and performative in her sweetness. It is easy to imagine her lying to her father, and I was very aware, when she denies to Othello that the handkerchief is missing, that she instantly resorts to cheerful lying rather than just telling the truth. Only after Othello is fully convinced of her adultery do we begin to see Desdemona’s real character– and therefore, her innocence. It strengthens Othello’s character without ultimately depriving hers of too much depth. (But in general I think we should just let ladies have all the lines they can get.)

The scene where Iago gets Cassio drunk is rapidly becoming one of my favorites, and has often proved to be a really excellent moment of crystallization for a lot of a given production’s ideas, especially about class. In this case, the soldiers sing and play a drinking game to which Cassio only vaguely knew the rules, and which quickly devolves into a gleefully seized chance for the enlisted men to haze their officer. In response, Cassio drunkenly attempts to salvage his dignity with a flash of rage, which leads smoothly into his attack on Roderigo. Freddie Stewart’s is a more openly self-interested Cassio than many I’ve seen lately, more completely disdainful of Bianca, and hinting at a genuine interest in Desdemona early on. 

The violence is all very sharp and well-handled, some of the best hand-to-hand combat I’ve seen in a while, particularly a chillingly intimate moment (and a nice foreshadowing of what was to immediately follow) in the penultimate scene when Roderigo attacks Cassio and Iago wounds him. As Roderigo stumbles away, Iago comes up directly behind Cassio and covers his eyes with his hand. Cassio manages at first to block Iago’s thrust (which, unlike many where he hastily goes for the hamstring, is clearly intended to be a killing blow) and they grapple there for a few moments before Iago manages to redirect and go for the leg.  

Obviously this production is after something much different than most things I talk about on here, but I appreciated that the director (Bill Buckhurst) and team clearly did not decide that being an educational production meant that they didn’t need to bother clearly thinking through a concept or trying to achieve nuanced and well-conceived performances. In fact, though the style is often more declamatory and outward-facing than I’ve gotten used to seeing lately in the Sam Wanamaker, I think in many ways the scenes that more completely eschew naturalism in this way are the most successful, and a useful reminder of the style of performance the space demands. 

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