Othello. Adapted for television by Andrew Davies.
Sheffield Hallam University
Hopkins, Lisa. "Review of Othello." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.1 (May, 2002): 11.1-4 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-1/othellorev.htm>.
Directed by Geoffrey Sax. With Richard Coyle as Michael Cass, Christopher Eccleston as Ben Jago, Keeley Hawes as Dessie Brabant, and Eamonn Walker as John Othello.
You have to feel sorry for actors. It is so easily possible to give a really good performance of a particular rôle yet still fail to capture the audience's imagination because someone else has already stolen the show. This was certainly the fate of the hapless cast of Andrew Davies' adaptation of Othello. I did try to keep paying attention to Eamonn Walker's dignified John Othello and Keeley Hawes' spirited yet loving Dessie, but by then I was already completely in thrall to Christopher Eccleston's Ben Jago.
Of course, Eccleston had help from the adapter. Andrew Davies is consistently the most interesting living adapter of classics for the small screen, but he does have one quirk: he often constitutes one character as effectively the normative / authoritative perspective, as when Elizabeth in his 1995 Pride and Prejudice is given the iconic line "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife," or when Molly in Wives and Daughters is established from the opening sequence as the dominant consciousness. Wives and Daughters is revisited pretty comprehensively in Othello, with Bill Paterson (Dr Gibson) as the indiscreet police commissioner and Keeley Hawes (Cynthia) as Dessie, and Davies' characteristic technique is also much in evidence again, particularly in the way that Jago flirts with the camera. He speaks directly into it, like Ian McKellen in Loncraine's Richard III (which is echoed too in the fact that a crucial scene takes place at a urinal). But Jago goes further than McKellen in that he not only addresses us but asks for our opinion (Davies having left Shakespeare's language a long way behind). Towards the end, he even says he's sorry he started it - but of course it's too late by then.
The inevitability of the tragedy is particularly painful because Davies' updating brings Othello so sharply close to home. John Othello is the first black commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and it looks at first as though he really might be able to solve some of the all too familiar problems within and around it (the familarity is heightened by the fact that the adaptation's Prime Minister and barrister bear a distinct resemblance to Tony and Cherie Blair). His eventual failure to do so makes the end doubly distressing.
- While the unfolding events gain one sort of power here, though they lose another. The closing sequences develop very differently from in Shakespeare, and not just because Davies has so thoroughly jettisoned the play's language. Even more far-reachingly, he has also changed the nature of the story, firstly by having Michael Cass drunkenly proposition Dessie just before John Othello returns home, and secondly by having Jago assure Othello that DNA evidence taken from his dressing gown confirms the adultery. This entirely blows apart the delicate balance created in the play and leaves Eamonn Walker's Othello with far too little to do. Ultimately, Davies' adaptation, for all its eye-catching contemporaneity, thus packs far less emotional punch than the original.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).