Posts Tagged ‘Othello’

17/09/11

On seeing the RSC’s Othello, directed by Kathryn Hunter, I swore never to see another production of Othello again. It is my favourite Shakespeare play, and she butchered it. Never again would I witness Shakespeare’s greatest villain laughing like a pantomime baddie as the curtain came down, never again would I see my favourite of Shakespeare’s stories ruined by someone who just didn’t get it…yet two years later, here I am.

I have never seen The Wire, so it was not the lure of Dominic West and Clarke Peters that drew me; but I did want to remedy the damage that Kathryn Hunter did, and pay another visit to my favourite play. Directed by Daniel Evans, this Othello is presented in traditional garb and traditional simplicity, but don’t for any second think this is boring. This is one of the most psychologically detailed and rich productions of the play I have seen – and I’ve seen a few!

From the opening scene we see Iago, a plainly spoken Northern soldier. He is not the spider we see in other adaptations of this text, nor is he some master chess player, moving the pieces to suit his own end – instead he is a negative, destructive bull of a man, who’s surface honesty is such, that it is totally unfathomable to anyone around him that he could be villainous. This is the only interpretation of Iago I have seen that drew laughs from the audience – even in moments of abject horror, the audience are complicit with Iago and are almost on his side, despite the horror of his actions.

West’s grip of the dialogue is such that nothing is thrown away, and we see the bitterness simmering just beneath the surface. The best example of this is when Emilia calls him ‘honest‘, drawing attention to his working class background among officers, he sneers in hatred, before gritting his teeth and barking out a sarcastic laugh, leering in at Emilia as he does it. It is a moment that sends a chill down the spine. West’s Iago moves from one reason to another in a bid to explain why he does what he does – he is angry at being passed over for officer, he hears rumour Othello has bedded his wife – but this Iago in such a way that even he isn’t really sure why he does it.

I’ve always found Othello a difficult role – he is incredibly intelligent and eloquent, charming the court and Desdemona’s father with the story of their courtship, yet he falls for Iago’s lies so easily. Peters is compelling, but I found his portrayal erratic. It is only because I’m so familiar with the text that I was aware of it, but he appeared to reword some of the lines, and in some cases, forget to say them altogether.

It seems Peters fell into the ‘Shakespeare trap’, as my old tutor used to call it, wherein he tried to force emotion through the dense dialogue, instead of allowing the text to do the work for him. I did see this play very early in the run, so I hope this is something he has now remedied, as I’m sure there is potential for a mind-blowing performance. Saying that, Peters had some moments where he rose to the challenge, particularly when playing against West, who seemed to bring out the best in Peter’s performance.

There’s also some fantastic work from the supporting players. Cassio, played by Gwylim Lee solves the problem of Othello’s jealousy coming from nowhere, by actually giving him something to be jealous of. Cassio is a smooth-talking, charismatic, Florentine gentleman, who clearly has chemistry with Desdemona. Even though that chemistry isn’t acted upon, it’s not at all surprising that Othello suspects the pair, and it’s not surprising that Iago selects him as an enemy. Iago lingers over the fact that Cassio, unlike himself, has never seen battle, and only knows of a soldiers life through books – yet he takes the officers job over the ‘honest’ Iago. Hell, I’d be looking for a bit of revenge if I were Iago!

Alexandra Gilbreath’s Emilia, the put-upon wife of Iago, is another little gem. Emilia lights up the stage, beautifully portraying the entire spectrum of emotions Emilia goes through as she skirts around West‘s barrelling Iago. The maternal relationship she has with Lily James’ Desdemona is really quite touching, and her guilt, as she gradually becomes aware of her role in her husbands scheming, is breathtaking. It’s just a fantastic performance of a role that is often overlooked.

Morgan Large’s set is deceptively simple, and incredibly well used. With a looming stone wall at the rear, and a beautifully constructed mosaic of the floor which subtly shifts throughout the performance, the space is left completely open and interchangeable. The production as a whole was incredibly strong throughout – in previous adaptations directors have focussed on the possibility of Iago’s latent homosexuality, or the idea that Othello did indeed bed Emilia, but Evan’s production does not make such presumptions. Instead this show presents Shakespeare’s text exactly how it is written, and no doubt not a million miles away from how it was originally performed, with its many verbal nuances and shades, open to any interpretation an audience member wishes to make. I am rarely disappointed when I visit the Crucible, and this is just another example of the great work they’re doing up there.

There are certainly ups and downs in this production, but it’s rare to get such clarity in a production of this play, and it’s worth the trip up north simply to witness the best portrayal of Iago I have ever seen.

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18/06/11

When we are thrown into the world of Dunsinane, Macbeth is all but defeated and the battle appears to be won. The soldiers we follow are trained in being a forest, and then thrown into a bloody skirmish. Peace takes hold of Dunsinane, but in Greig‘s adaptation, it isn‘t as simple as that.

Dunsinane follows the English officer, Siward, who seeks to impose order in Scotland after the death of Macbeth and Malcolm’s installation on the throne. He finds peace-keeping in the chaotic tribal run country fraught with hidden pitfalls.

When Siward orders his comrade to “Tell the men we’ll be in Scotland a little longer than expected.”, immediate parallels are drawn between 11th-century Scotland, and the current situation in the Middle East. The struggles faced by Siward, accompanied by an army ill-equipped to deal with the guerilla tactics of the native population, are fascinating to watch. The more the English officers and soldiers attempt to understand Scottish culture and the alien land they have been thrown into, the more hapless their efforts to tame it look.

The problems of negotiating a foreign land and its people are also wittily portrayed from the point of view of the common soldier, with one boys letters to his mother back home providing moments on levity and a stark insight into the morale of the troops.

This is definitely a character piece, and the performances are amazing. I first came across Jonny Phillips playing Iago at Riverside Studio’s – it was this performance that first ignited my passion for Shakespeare, so it was a delight to see him tackle this equally meaty role. He is glorious as Siward, conveying the bubbling frustration and confusion beneath his grizzled surface, while constantly trying to maintain his honour and principles.

Siobhan Redmond is superb as the formidable Gruach, the proud queen seeking to restore her son to the throne. While her accent is a little odd at times (which I find strange considering she is actually Scottish), she leaves the audience in no doubt that, while she is prisoner, she is the person who possesses the real power in Scotland.

In contrast to this, Brian Ferguson’s deadpan Malcolm is just hilarious. Sporting an oversized crown, his mannerisms and speech let the audience know immediately that he is not the man to unite the clans of Scotland, indeed, he seems to actively hate Scotland, and all the clan leaders to boot! He becomes a scene-stealer in any scene he finds himself in, peppering the otherwise depressing situation with sardonic witticisms that skewer Anglo-Scottish behaviour and highlight the futility of the situation.

The stage itself is wonderfully simple: a large Celtic cross perches on some stone steps, overlooking a rocky layered stage. This simplistic design allows for the fast pace we see throughout, with soldiers running through the Swan Theatre as though the battle is taking place just beyond the walls of the theatre. Live music is also handled brilliantly, with some very beautiful Celtic singing framing a lot of the action.

David Grieg’s Shakespearean sequel, expertly directed by Roxanna Silbert, is an outstanding addition to the RSC’s season. At 2 hours 30 minutes long, they appear to have cut a lot from the daunting 3 hour run time that many complained about at Hampstead Theatre; this seems to have created a much slicker play. The timing throughout this piece is wonderful, tripping delicately between comedy, tragedy and satire with the greatest of ease.

In a speech delivered cautiously by Malcolm, we come to realise that peace is not a default situation in this Scotland, but rather a rare freak occurrence, like a calm sea before the waves come. It is a depressing, but beautiful allegory, and one that demonstrates the futility of modern conflicts much more simply than any news report ever could.