Time to do a little catch-up work. The 2016 election was — to put it mildly — a clusterfuck of epic proportions. There were two Shakespeare productions that were playing in New York City at the end of the year, however, that really went quite far in encapsulating where we are as a global society.
The first was Red Bull Theater’s Coriolanus. The play is ready made for our current moment. The tension between autocratic rulers and a restless and mercurial population speaks volumes about a disillusioned people who simply want to blow things up. Director Martin Sexton was both true to his source and true to the world outside the theater’s doors with his depiction of the titular hero soliciting for votes in Rome. Perhaps most prophetically about the work is that Coriolanus finds more in common with Aufidius, the leader of Rome’s enemy, rather than with his own people. Patrick Page, who is fast becoming one of my favorite New York actors (his work in Hadestown and Deaf West’s Spring Awakening was vital), was excellent in the role of Menenius.
The other production that captivated me was, of course, New York Theater Workshop’s rendering of Othello. Of course, stars Daniel Craig (Iago) and David Oyelowo (Othello) garnered most of the attention, but they were just two components in an superlative and successful ensemble. (I can’t remember the last time I so enjoyed a Roderigo — thanks to Matthew Maher.) Director Sam Gold moved the play forward to a modern military barracks somewhere overseas. While there was nothing particularly new about this choice — the National in London had made a similar choice a couple of years ago — the exploration of character is what truly marked this Othello as one for the ages.
The over-arching question of the play is the why. Why does Iago go after Othello with such a blind fury of revenge? Iago offers a few red herrings along the way, but none of those are particularly believable. For the aforementioned National production, Rory Kinnear presented an Iago who was just a bloke simply bored out of his mind.
Craig’s choice was far more active. His Iago was one of white entitlement and resentment. Not only did that crystallize the production but sent it screaming through the night like a runaway freight train (in a good way). The caveat here is resounding. That white resentment, let loose, will destroy everything before it — even the whole wide world.
For any who don’t think Shakespeare is relevant (I’m looking at your Ira Glass), these two productions more than prove them wrong.