First day in Stratford. Happy things first: I did really quite like Chris Abraham’s Othello (the swooning enthusiasm in many reviews and some of the reactions on Twitter seems a bit hysterical to me, but whatever). Julie Fox’s set in particular is a delight – three slabs of red wood, one as a raked, rotating playing space in the centre and two, stood on end, as a backdrop that changes continually, from an acute angle enclosing the action to a flat, broad wall of red, to narrow black alleys (both slabs are hollow and have stairs inside them). It’s a remarkably versatile design, both highly theatrical and satisfyingly abstract. The two strongest visual moments of the show are owed to the set: the opening image of the first part, when all three pieces frame the handkerchief, lying dead centre in a single spotlight; and the opening image of part two, when the same frame encloses the bed upstage, a simple square of white from which two long panels of white cloth stream upwards into the fly loft. Both these moments capture in extremely reduced form what is at the heart of those two parts of the play – the object around which Othello’s jealousy grows, and the place in which it will find its fatal consummation.
Personally, I would have been happy to see this kind of aesthetic reductionism at play elsewhere. Because to me at least, it’s a little absurd to take a set such as this one and then populate it with a cast rich in extras (as is Stratford’s wont) and dressed in meticulously detailed Elizabethan outfits (what passes for stage historicism in these parts). The sheer wastefulness of the Venetian lords’ costumes struck me as bizarre on this stage, as did the decision to have Lodovico appear in Cyprus not just with a retinue of expensively dressed gentlemen, but also with an enormous parasol. And when Iago is brought back on at the end of the play followed not just by a stream of Venetian and Cypriot characters but also by a handful of bumbling soldiers in enormous helmets and with comically huge halberds, I found it hard not to giggle – not the frame of mind I wanted to be in at that moment!
I’m not sure how much I can say about Abraham’s take on the play – it’s directed with a fairly light hand. Othello’s race is downplayed quite significantly: Othello is a drama about doubt, jealousy, and manipulation here, not about the moor’s specific propensity to suffer from violent fits of passion (the racist and/or xenophobic logic arguably written into Shakespeare’s script). Dion Johnstone’s Othello is given a flavour of otherness in his vaguely West Indian accent, which comes and goes. I liked it better when it went, partly because of unwelcome memories of Olivier’s painful attempt at a similar accent, but mostly because Othello is already othered so much by the language Shakespeare has given the character that layering another register of aural otherness on top of that just seems like overkill. The religious conflicts in the play are barely noticeable in this production either, which affects how Othello is drawn as much as Iago’s and Desdemona’s characterization. None of this is meant as a critique – but I would say that there is a reduction of what are in the script complex issues bound up with cultural and religious forces to emotional states. In this as well as in the set design, then, there is a principle of reduction at work, and it would have been nice to see that principle followed through more rigorously in all aspects of the production.
All in all, this is a well-done show, but in some ways, oddly lacking in detail. Compared to the Othello currently on stage at the National Theatre, which shares the broadly psychologically realist, textually fairly unadventurous approach Abraham and his team have taken, I’m not sure any of the characters – with the possible exception of Cassio – were as fully developed, as nuanced, and as clearly realized as embodied figures. At the NT, everyone was constantly doing stuff (for want of a more elegant way of putting it at the end of a long day): everyone was constantly acting and reacting. Here, by contrast, I often felt like I could have closed my eyes without missing a lot, especially in the scenes between two characters, and almost always in the soliloquies. In a different kind of production, I wouldn’t have minded that at all (in one of Michael Thalheimer’s stagings, for instance). But this Othello is not a show that seems at all interested in exploring non-realist acting styles, so the lack of detail read instead, to me, as a kind of surrender to a text that isn’t actually sufficient to bring psychologically “rounded” characters to life – not an unexpected move, to be sure, but one I continue to find frustrating (because it’s basically asking Shakespeare to do work he can’t do, he didn’t do, and which he wasn’t aware of). In the NT production, to give just one example, Rory Kinnear’s Iago responds to Emilia handing over the handkerchief at first with fairly underplayed appreciation; as soon as she’s offstage, he jumps up, brandishing the handkerchief in utter glee. That’s not in the text, obviously, but so what – it was an interesting choice, a powerful reaction, and a theatrically effective gesture. From Graham Abbey’s take on the same moment, I (others may differ) got nothing I wouldn’t have got from a reading of the play. And that’s disappointing to me. It’s also frustrating, as Abraham is clearly capable of staging choices that do interesting things to the text: parts of his take on 4.2 are fascinating, with Othello and Desdemona both on their knees, staring at each other, neither quite in the other’s mental universe anymore. It’s a powerful moment that doesn’t last long enough and is resolved too quickly into a more conventional blocking, but it was one of the few instances of the evening that had me sitting up in my chair with a “Wow, I haven’t seen that before.” The murder, too, which takes forever, is such a moment: Abraham stages it with Othello facing the audience as he spends what feels like minutes strangling and smothering Desdemona, an increasing look of desperation on his face, eventually collapsing over her with a gut-wrenching long groan. (If I were to carry on with odorous comparisons, I’d say that Johnstone’s portrayal of Othello’s descent into jealous irrationality was much less problematic for me than Adrian Lester’s in the NT production — the latter seemed to perpetuate some of the play’s associations of blackness with animalistic qualities, whereas Johnstone steers well clear of letting his Othello slide into that sort of overt physical otherness. That doesn’t make the character more sympathetic, to my mind, but it renders him as a figure that’s drawing wrong conclusions, making terrible decisions, suffering emotionally and intellectually in the process, and committing horrible deeds as a consequence — not as someone slipping out of Western/Christian/Venetian civilization.)
My biggest gripe with this production is its startling lack of irony. Othello is allowed almost no access to sarcasm (and there’s plenty in the text – of a bitter, nasty kind). More damagingly, Iago doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of humour, nor does he seem to enjoy his scheming. Abbey plays Iago as driven, to be sure, given to angry outbursts, but there is very little of the constant ironic commentary I associate with Iago – very little playfulness, very little of the character’s knowing reflection on the sheer unlikeliness of his plotting’s success. It’s a truism to say that Iago is a descendent of the Vice figure, but he doesn’t seem especially aware of his own theatrical ancestry in this production. Dramaturgically, I think that creates a problem for the play: there is already one emotionally extreme character. When Iago operates as much in Othello’s emotional territory as he does in Abbey’s take on the role, it may render his scheming more psychologically comprehensible (as one especially insight-free reviewer wrote the other day, “mental illness is one way of explaining Iago’s evil scheming”). But that’s a loss, not a gain. And it also releases the audience from its complicity with Iago: we’re here to see a tragedy, and the play never lets us forget that Iago is the agent who is making sure we’re going to get what we paid for. Here, on the other hand, we watch the character do his thing, but he never looks back at us, he doesn’t let us in – he doesn’t enjoy the plotting as much as we enjoy watching him. This perverse shared interest isn’t essential to the play, of course, but if a production largely makes do without it, there ought to be some sort of payoff; I’m not sure I know what that supposed reward was meant to be.
I also saw Measure for Measure, about which I have almost nothing to say. The opening is neat: the Duke’s in drag, with a wig and full-face mask – clearly a serial offender in the walking-around-his-city-in-disguise game. But I’ve rarely seen a production of this play in which the stakes seemed lower than in this one, and in which the characters were as two-dimensionally drawn. I suppose it’s fine to have an Angelo that’s just kind of nasty, and a Duke that’s just kind of a weird schemer, and an Isabella who’s just hard done by and trying to do the right thing, but I don’t think such a take makes for a more interesting Measure for Measure. Me, I would like to feel a bit of sympathy for Angelo, and I’d like my Duke a good deal more creepy, and I really want my Isabella to be in more or less equal measure heart-breaking and reprehensibly self-righteous. But whatever. I also noticed the same static staging here that irritated me in Othello, especially in the soliloquies: actors just suddenly planting their feet, acting at best from the waist up, delivering a well-structured speech. They’re not badly delivered, those speeches, but they sound like – and they sure look like – speeches, not like a character working through an intellectual or emotional issue. Which, again, I’d be fine with in a production where that’s how characters work. This, like the Othello is not such a production.
One final gripe: I am all in favour of non-traditional casting. I really, truly am. But given that the bed-trick in Measure for Measure is already straining credulity in modern, realist productions of this play, it seems like an unnecessary complication to cast an African-Canadian actor as Mariana when your Isabella is played by a very pale-skinned actor. The obvious solution would have been actors of colour in both roles.
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