Tag Archives: Othello

Shakespeare and the 2016 Election

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.

Beware the Green Eyed Monster

I am just back from London where I had the opportunity to see Othello at the Royal National Theatre (my favorite theatre in the world). Adrian Lester, whom I first assay the role of Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl’s exemplary production of As You Like It almost 20 years ago, played the Moor. And because he’s Adrian Lester he was excellent. But the standpoint in the production is Rory Kinnear (Tanner in Quantum of Solace and Skyfall) as Iago. Of course, Iago is the stealth lead of the play — he has more lines than Othello and the role is active while that of his commander is mostly reactive — but Kinnear has a unique take that places him as the Iago for our generation.

As with most RNT Shakespeare productions, this Othello is given a contemporary setting. Shakespeare sets most of the play in a Cyprus recently “liberated” from the Ottoman Empire by Venetian forces. So it was not a difficult conceptual leap for director Nicholas Hytner (on top of his game as always) to re-imagine the setting as a base camp for an expeditionary force stationed in a Middle East nation for one of the US/UK’s numerous military adventures in that part of the world. The frequent call to prayer by a muezzin in the distance cements the feeling of isolation of those stationed in the camp.

Othello and Iago are both officers in desert camo. Iago targets Othello not because of racism or the latter’s preferment of Cassio or for perceived advances on his wife. Iago does it because he’s bored! He stirs the pot because he has nothing else to do. Modern war fiction has often chronicled one of the greatest dangers of soldiers in the field: boredom. Hytner and Kinnear pick up on this rich seam and have used it to give motivation to Iago. And it works. It gives Iago breadth and depth.

A number of years ago I saw a production at the Delacorte with Raul Julia as Othello and Christopher Walken as Iago; you would think it would have been great — it wasn’t. Walken did his usual schtick, which wore out quickly. His Iago was this monster with blood dripping from his teeth in the vein of Richard III. That simply doesn’t work. Kinnear’s portrayal, however, is a revelation. Iago is just a bloke. He likes hanging out with the other soldiers, sharing a smoke or a bottle. Rather than being the paragon of evil, he manifests the banality of evil. He sets this all in motion simply because, well, he can. And that makes him more frightening.

In this production, racism — other than in the person of Brabantio — is not a factor. Othello’s command is multicultural. The person who sticks out like a sore thumb here is Desdemona. Once we are in Act II, almost everyone is dressed in uniform except for her; even Emilia is career military (which fits in with the production’s conception of Iago). That she is the only civilian isolates her and provides a reason for Othello to distrust her — especially since Cassio alone among the soldiers pays any attention to her.

Othello is often a difficult play to direct because once the Moor hits angry/jealous mode, it is difficult to find a new place to take him while Iago’s motivations are often difficult to nail down. The current production at the National, though, is lively, provocative, and unique while remaining true to  the script. A must see.