In my last post, I wrote about my return to the Stratford Festival after many, many years. I did not expect that my next visit would take place so soon afterwards, but then a chance to see another production for the irresistible price of $19 presented itself, and I jumped. I chose to see Othello, which was the Festival’s headlining Shakespeare production this season, in its final performance.
Othello has never ranked high for me among Shakespeare’s tragedies, and after seeing this production, I think I understand why. It’s an uncomfortable, relentless play, lacking in subplots or any real trace of humour, where the noble and sympathetic Othello is driven to commit domestic violence and murder upon the innocent Desdemona by Iago, one of Shakespeare’s purest villains. There is not one redeeming quality at all in Iago–he’s petty, scheming, bloodthirsty, and driven by jealousy and hate; it’s been pointed out that he is a direct descendant of the character Vice in medieval morality plays. The protagonist of Shakespeare’s plays often has a primary fatal flaw, and while one may argue that Othello’s is jealousy, in fact I believe, as this production made clear, that it’s actually his susceptibility to what we’d call today “fake news” and “trolling.” He’s a soldier’s soldier, and isn’t secure enough outside that world to dismiss the poison that Iago pours into his ear about the wife he loves. It does not help that he is never secure in that relationship, thanks to the opposition of Desdemona’s family to the union and his status as an outsider. He sees things as black and white, yes or no, with no nuance between the extremes.
The fact that he is a black man trying to navigate in white society also plays into this insecurity; he says several times that he is “rude of speech” and, in an almost throwaway line early in the play, we hear that he had in fact been a slave at one point. Black slavery in Shakespeare’s time had not yet grown into the massive enterprise (linchpin to so many economies) it would later become, and there were certainly Black people (or “Moors”) in Europe who had never been slaves, but that is not to say there was no racism at work. Othello’s black skin as well as his outsider status are the primary reasons Desdemona’s family oppose her marriage, and the fact that her father accuses Othello of bewitching her through some sort of foul magic clearly show these racist roots.
But enough about the work itself, and on to the production I saw. This production was set in the present, which brought forward several themes present in the original but with especial resonance today. I’ve already mentioned the theme of race, but that was actually far less prominent than two other issues: the impact of trolling and lies on good people, and misogyny.
Gordon S. Miller — so good as the ridiculous Dr. Caius in Merry Wives of Windsor – played Iago as an incel, the type of man who today would sit in his parents’ basement, jealous at the promotions given to all of the Chads and wondering why the Stacys won’t pay attention to him. He is a master of the troll, of concocting evidence to support his conspiracy theories, without a care in the world about the lives he destroys. “I hate the Moor,” he says early on, but for all his protestations that Cassio is not the soldier he is, he shows absolutely no evidence of military skill. His wife Emelia, played by Laura Condin (and for my money, the linchpin of this entire production) as a soldier rather than a maid, evinces a toughness he lacks, even as he uses her for his nefarious ends, as well as a willingness to call out his lies–which she dies for. Yet Othello utterly trusts Iago, to his great undoing. And the portrayal of undoing is what distinguishes Michael Blake’s performance as Othello. At first the picture of the confident, calm commander, Blake’s Othello comes apart before our eyes, his speech fragmenting as he strides and then thrashes about the stage until, at a key stage, consumed by wordless rage, he collapses in an epileptic seizure (which we hear is not his first). This fragmentation is in Shakespeare’s text, but Blake makes it live, never slipping into caricature, but evincing huge sympathy as the audience realizes that not only is he a black man in a white man’s world, he is troubled by a significant disability. He is easily then egged on to acts of violence, and the swagger returns, the absolute confidence that he is correct, the unwillingness to listen to reason until Emelia calls out Iago over Desdemona’s dead body.
And more than anything else, I found the most powerful statement in this performance to be about misogyny. From the very beginning, Desdemona is played by Amelia Sargisson as absolutely alone in the play. There are other women, to be sure, but with one exception, they are playing in a man’s world and their dialogue reflects that–the production changes the Duke of Venice into a Duchess, makes several of the soldiers female, and, as mentioned above, changes the role of Emelia from maid to soldier attached to Desdemona’s household (presumably to protect her). This makes Emelia’s dialogue much richer, as she clearly struggles with the pull between her identity as a soldier and as a woman, and makes the critical scene just before Desdemona goes to bed (and to her death) more poignant. In the scene where Cassio is egged on to drink by Iago, there is a female soldier present whose body language seems to speak of her discomfort at the banter of the men. The only other woman who does not wear masculine-reading garb is Bianca, Cassio’s paramour, constantly called whore and denigrated by Cassio himself when drunk. But even she wears a dressy jumpsuit. Desdemona is the only character to appear in a dress in the entire play, and crucially, she changes into one from her earlier outfit of leggings and a drapy tunic after Othello has turned against her and she (although she does not yet know it) has lost agency. And the absolute most shocking event in the entire production is not Desdemona’s murder–although the violence of that in this production was notable–but the earlier scene where Othello slaps her and calls her “devil”–done in front of several men who simply stand by, shaking their heads at how much he is changed. She comes into this scene completely unprepared for what awaits her (which, of course, the audience is privy to) and leaves utterly confused. Just after that, Emilia tries to defend Desdemona to Othello, and he utterly dismisses her as stupid, “a simple bawd.” Emilia’s soldier’s garb here makes this dismissal even more striking–as presumably, this is a woman who has served with Othello in combat, and yet she, too, is dismissed because of her sex. Director Nigel Shawn Williams ends the play with three of these nameless female soldiers wailing just before the stage goes dark, a very effective move especially given that in this play, Iago does not receive justice. He is captured, wounded, and his lies unmasked–but in the end, in this production, he stands there silent, a smirk on his face, seemingly unconcerned with the “torture” that is promised him. What does he care? The Chads and Stacys are dead, and it was all worth it.
I was particularly struck by the minimalism of the design of this performance. The entire production was largely drained of strong colour. Large screens were positioned at the back of the stage, upon which was projected architecture in the early going, but increasingly abstract scenes of roiling clouds, stormy seas, shadowed branches, cracked glass, and buzzing insects, all in black and white. Iago’s monologues were marked by dripping, dark blood or abstract black blotches that seemed to explode as if inside his head. There were just two pieces of set furnishing during the entire play–a bench, and Desdemona’s bed. The soldiers all wore khakis and tans, the Venetian nobles dark suits; Bianca and Desdemona wore largely blues and tans, except for the latter’s white and blue print dress in her scenes just before her death. Only the soldiers’ red berets provided a flash of colour–notably, one that brought to mind blood. And the play was almost entirely without music–except some ominous electronic pieces at the play’s beginning and after intermission, and Desdemona’s a capella, bluesy performance of the “song about Willow” in her scene with Emilia just before she retires to bed.
This production very definitely left me unsettled–but that was the whole point. The ending Shakespeare wrote is incredibly abrupt–Othello dies just 13 lines before the end of the play, with Iago still alive and Lodovico more or less saying “you’ll get yours!” to him in an extremely unsatisfying way. The audience is left to mourn the fruit of lies–the deaths the innocent (Desdemona), those who would expose the truth (Emilia), and those corrupted by lies (Othello, and Roderigo earlier in the play), knowing that the perpetrator of those lies might just escape. “Their world is our world,” said Williams in his passionate introduction to the play in the program (see below). Kudos to him and the cast for making that case clearly and forcefully.
This production was filmed, I believe. It’s definitely worth seeing.