William Shakespeare, Othello. Presented by
Northern Broadsides at Trafalgar Studios, London, England. 3 October 2009.
Kevin De Ornellas
University of Ulster
Kevin De Ornellas. "Review of William Shakespeare, Othello. Presented by Northern Broadsides at Trafalgar Studios, London, England. 3 October 2009." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/orneoth.htm>.
Directed by Barrie Rutter. Music composed by Conrad Nelson. Set
designed by Ruari Murchison. Costumes designed by Stephen Snell. Lighting
designed by Guy Hoare.
With Conrad Nelson (Iago), Matt Connor (Roderigo), Geoff Leesley (Brabantio), Lenny Henry (Othello), Richard Standing (Cassio), David Beckford (Duke/Gratiano), Simon Holland Roberts (Senator/Lodovico), Jessica Harris
(Desdemona), Andy Cryer (Montano), Sara Poyzer (Emilia), Chris Pearse (Herald)
and Victoria Gee (Bianca).
- In Willy Russell’s play, Educating Rita, the eponymous mature student, new to Shakespeare, reacts with naïve but infectious vigour to a
performance of Macbeth: “Wasn’t his wife a cow, eh?” (28). This Othello, set in a vaguely nineteenth-century military milieu and starring the unlikely figure of Lenny
Henry, an ubiquitous and reassuringly unfunny comedic presence on British
television for three decades, invited Rita-like responses from even veteran
Shakespeareans. Simply, this was a theatrically compelling but intellectually
straightforward interpretation of the play. Characters were monolithic and
one-dimensional rather than nuanced and multi-faceted: Iago was simply demonic;
Roderigo was bitter and small-minded; Cassio was a third-rate ladies man;
Desdemona was foolish and ingenuous; and Othello was an egotist who was broken
with pathetic ease by Iago’s deceitful tongue. So, at the end of the play, the audience was almost audibly baying for Iago’s blood. Only Sara Poyzer’s dutiful, honest Emilia captured much sympathy from an audience that barely lamented the murderous, stupid Othello.
- Before describing and analysing
the dramatic trajectory of this well-played but largely unimaginative
production, one must complain about the cramped conditions of the playhouse
itself. West End theatres are not renowned for offering audience comfort, but the Trafalgar Studios offer worse facilities than most: there is a lack even of armrests
between seats. The theatre is a sort of modern version of the classic Victorian
proscenium arch, with a slight difference in that the audience looks down from
the stalls (rather than up) onto the action in one long bank of ascending rows
of seats. So, even from the most expensive seats, eight rows from the front, we were forced to bend our bodies to lean over to concentrate on the aural and visual action.
After three hours of concentrating – when the verse-speaking was not always
admirably clear – the audience was left feeling sore and fed up with physical
pain as well as mental agony at the ease with which a charmless Iago could
cause so much domestic carnage.
- The play began with an empty, black stage: throughout, props were few and the décor was generally bare. The emptiness, although relevant to the play’s nocturnal opening, perhaps also reflected the emotional and
moral emptiness of the first characters on stage: Iago and Roderigo, played by Conrad Nelson and Matt Connor respectively. The former was a short, balding, generously-nosed military middle manager; the latter was a bitter, equally small mediocrity who lacked even Iago’s masculinity-enhancing military uniform.
Neither aroused sympathy as they whined to each other about the loss of the
“old gradation” (Iago) and Desdemona’s indifference (Roderigo). Like all of the
other characters, barring the Jamaican-tinged, southern English accent of
Othello, these two spoke with unapologetically northern English, regional accents. (The production opened in Northern Broadsides’ home county, Yorkshire, before moving to London.) Brabantio was played with appropriate bad-temper by Geoff
Leesley. Desdemona’s father was annoyed by his daughter’s matter-of-factness as
she explained to him that her duty now lay with Othello rather than him. It was
typical of Jessica Harris’ Desdemona that she was blithely unaware of her
inability to temper her dutiful simplicity with tones of mollification – this
Desdemona was cravenly unaware of how unintentionally offensive her determined
assertions could be. In this opening act, Henry’s Othello dominated through
sheer presence (Henry is over 190 centimetres tall and stockily built). He made
the audience laugh at him, not with him, when he boasted about the impression
that his ridiculous stories about “Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / Do grow
beneath their shoulders” (I.iii.145-6) made on the gullible Desdemona; his
raised eyebrows also got a laugh as he displayed casual contempt for the Duke
who calls him “more fair than black” (I.iii.291). A most pregnant passage of
drama climaxed for me when Brabantio grabbed Othello’s arm to stress to him
that he has been caught by the seductive vixen, Desdemona. Although Henry
brusquely shook Brabantio’s arm away, the suggestion that Desdemona would
betray him as she betrayed her father seemed to sere into his soul.
- Act Two opened with some vague staging: it was
hard to work out whether Montano and the other Gentlemen were witnessing a
storm or whether one had concluded or whether indeed they were near the coast
of their homeland of Cyprus. Things improved with the arrival of Desdemona –
who was eye-openingly if innocently tactile with Richard Standing’s Cassio.
Cassio, though, greeted the disciplined, more formal Emilia with a similar, kiss-bestowing familiarity, suggesting that he simply liked the corporal feel of women.
Crucial at this point were Iago’s remarks about the tongue-lashings that Emilia
supposedly “oft bestows on me” (II.i.101). These remarks were made humourlessly, without self-effacement or slyness. Misogynistic and crass, Iago here revealed himself to be a
dull, petty hater of women rather than a rogue with a capacity for charm. Iago
noted the warmth of Desdemona’s greeting to Cassio – and noted too Cassio’s
quite apparent disappointment at the arrival of his boss, Othello, whose physical presence and sheer military rank soon took over both Desdemona and the whole
militarised island. Predictably enough, the staging of Act Two degenerated into
a barrack-room drinking session. The conscientious and/or concupiscent Othello
went off to bed with Desdemona whilst Cassio was coaxed into boozing games by
Iago. After much loud music – which wore out its welcome quickly - and
sack-gulping by the haplessly inebriated Cassio, the scene broke up into an
agreeably chaotic brawl. (Chaos is difficult to choreograph on stage.) Cassio’s
despair at his drink-sodden weakness was impressive and tragic. In this production, the Cassio subplot appeared to constitute a sort of tragicomedy in itself – a reasonably
socially senior man rises, falls and then rises again at the play’s end. Henry’s
Othello, enraged by the disturbing of his night with Desdemona, soon cleared up
the mess with the sheer noise of his command. His patronising assurance to
Desdemona that “All’s well now” (II.iii.248) caused amusement because of the
huge drop in the volume of his voice as he spoke softly to his doll-like wife.
Othello’s belief in the restoration of order was neatly summarised as Henry
carefully heeded the rhyme in his aphoristic reflection on the normality of
abnormality for a soldier: “’Tis the soldier’s life / To have their balmy
slumbers waked with strife” (II.iii.253-4). Iago would see to it that Othello
would suffer much strife of a nature not foreseen by the hubristic, seemingly invincible Moor.
- Effectively, Act Three has two main
developments: Desdemona infuriates Othello by lobbying on behalf of the
now-disgraced Cassio and Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is in fact
having sex with Cassio. Desdemona was performed with compelling conviction by
Harris here: she literally jumped up and down with petulant enthusiasm as she
implored the unmoved and increasingly impatient Othello to stop “mammering on”
and to engage again with the out-of-favour Michael Cassio (III.iii.70). Othello
was as irritated by Iago as he was by his Cassio-lauding wife. Othello was
alone with his crucial board-mounted maps, seeking to further the Venetian
army’s occupation of Turkey-loathing Cyprus: he did not want to be bothered by
insinuating, riddle-marred discourse from the intrusive petty officer, Iago. But Iago gets attention, of course. Henry raised his fist repeatedly at Nelson’s Iago, aiming aggressively at the antagonist’s head. This underlined the audacity and temerity of
Iago’s allegations because he literally risked the full force of Othello’s
enraged aggression. The Moor’s closeness to striking Iago underlined too his
inability to cope rationally with the allegations against his wife: incapable
of guile or reason, this Othello was all too believable as a potential
wife-killer. Henry’s Othello was already cracking: it was impossible to gauge
what he wanted exactly when he intimidated Iago by demanding that he “prove my
love a whore” (III.iii.362). Did he want Iago to be proved right? It was
impossible not to feel that Othello would on some level rather be betrayed by
Desdemona than Iago. More of a hawk that a dove, more of a fighter than a lover, Othello recklessly threw a knife into one of the maps, stimulating the sort of gasp from the
audience that one hears on an aircraft at a moment of unexpected turbulence.
From this point on, Henry’s Othello was a man teetering constantly on the brink
of an explosive rage that would inevitably wind up fatal. There was an
ominousness to the humourless manner with which he responded to Desdemona’s
childish but affection mimicry of his deep voice: the mutual fun of this
relationship was now past-tense.
- There are two other, seemingly more minor developments in Act Three. We hear that Emilia has taken the handkerchief from Desdemona’s chamber. It was significant that Emilia expressed
only resigned bitterness as she told us the reason why she agreed to take it
for Iago: “I nothing but to please his fantasy” (III.iii.303). This was not an
indulgent housewife but a virtually broken one, one ground into submission by a
hectoring husband who would not stop hectoring until he got his way. The other
development is the appearance of the difficult-to-assess Bianca. In this
production she was portrayed as an attention-seeking but earnest girl–about-town
by Victoria Gee. With her vivid scarlet dress, Bianca was brash and loud
visually as well as vocally. There was no effort to clarify whether or not she
was involved with Cassio for companionate or fiscal reasons. She reminded me of
Shelagh Delaney’s stage-direction description of her character, Helen, in A Taste of Honey: a “semi-whore” (7). Like Iago’s Emilia, Bianca was an object for Cassio, a useful functionary who grated when having the cheek to
demand some duty in return. This scene between the bothered Cassio and the
neglected, semi-whorish Bianca did not offer any light relief: it was a
reminder of the callous misogyny that animates so much of the play’s
- Henry’s commitment to portraying
Othello’s physical and well as mental breakdown was underlined at the start of
Act Four as he sprawled and convulsed in a literal enactment of the suggestion
that he had “fallen into an epilepsy” (IV.i.50). Iago’s false concern for
Othello’s wellbeing disgusted the audience here, as did Cassio’s haughty
incredulousness about Bianca, who “haunts me in every place” (IV.i.132-3). Only
Cassio thought he was funny here. The audience’s dread was increased
effectively by Henry’s brooding menace as he listened in to Cassio’s remarks, thinking, of course, that it is his Desdemona who “haunts” Cassio. The arrival of Lodovico
seemed to offer some hope to an island that was rapidly becoming claustrophobic
and intrigue-infested. Desdemona’s warm greeting to Lodovico confirmed her
generous, if misguided nature, but also set the scene up for the shock of
Othello’s brutal slap on her undeserving face. Physically hurt by the fierceness
of the unwarranted slap, Harris’ Desdemona also lost dignity in the audience’s
eyes because she seemed to sincerely believe that she had somehow deserved the
assault: when she said that she would “not stay to offend” her husband she
seemed to really believe that she owed it to his authority and comfort to
relieve him of her offending presence (IV.i.246). This was a stupid, punishment-accepting Desdemona, not the dignified, self-assured victim that we see sometimes
in other productions. Iago’s ceaseless venality was revealed further later in
the Act. Othello threw down a purse of gold to Emilia who continued to look
after Desdemona with attentive seriousness – she was the only major character
in the production to merit consistent audience approval. Not only did Emilia
ignore the money, she barely noticed it, perhaps deciding to pointedly ignore
the rudeness with which Othello had despatched it from his huge hands. But
Nelson’s Iago noticed the money: with an avariciousness that contrasted sharply
with his wife’s fiscal disinterest, he surreptitiously lifted the money and
stuck it inside his tunic. It was clear that Emilia was used by him just as
much as Roderigo was. Roderigo is forgotten by Iago at this point in the play
almost as much as he is by the audience: he is a nuisance now, one whose subjective concerns are totally irrelevant to the increasingly selfish Iago. The Act
ended with a moment of gynocentric peace. On a large bed brought onstage – one
of few major props on this largely bare-staged production – Desdemona gently
ordered that Emilia “unpin me here” (IV.iii.33). In the challenging film
directed by Ingmar Bergman, Cries and Whispers, a rich, middle-aged woman, Karin, is slowly, painstakingly stripped of many layers of restrictive
clothing by a servant; the multi-layered, tight clothing symbolises the
emotional oppression and sexual repression that the woman endures. A similar
process occurred slowly here: several layers of skirts and petticoats were
taken off Desdemona, and she seemed to be acquiring some identity through the
removal of these exterior, largely unnecessary accoutrements. Wearing only a
white nightdress and white knickers, Desdemona enjoyed a moment of calm with
the devoted Emilia, a moment free from evermore threatening men.
- Desdemona’s bed remained on stage
throughout Act Five. The whiteness of her sheeting and the stillness of her
sleep-of-the-innocent contrasted vividly with the masculinist posturing that
continued on the other side of the stage. Iago continued to insult women by
calling the incredulous Bianca “strumpet” and “trash” and his giddy joy in
extorting money from Roderigo was a sly link back to his theft of Othello’s
Emilia-orientated purse in the previous act (V.i.77, 85). Desdemona continued
to show no insight into her husband’s murderous misguidedness, right up to her impressively staged, smothered end. When she asserted that nobody but “I
myself” was responsible for her death, she seemed to believe it (V.ii.122).
This was not a connivingly devoted Desdemona who sought to deflect blame away
from her husband, but rather a foolish woman who really seemed to think that
she had somehow inspired violent reprisal for a transgression that she did not
comprehend. Othello, too, showed an extraordinary lack of self-awareness. When
Henry’s Moor asserted confidently that “it was not I” who killed her he seemed
not to be proving that Desdemona tells lies but asserting that he was some
passive actor in her necessary death, a death that would have happened with or
without his hand (V.ii.125). Only the howling defence of Desdemona by a
now-vocal and ever-louder Emilia made inroads into Othello’s sense-deflecting
breast. Dying, Poyzer’s Emilia climbed onto bed with her dead mistress, Desdemona. Eroticised as a couple in death, Desdemona and Emilia represented a sort of parody
of marriage. As in life, they took comfort in each other in death as men around
them imploded and exploded with inexplicable agendas and catastrophically
ruinous hostility. Shamed, the Moor grabbed a knife that was concealed
imaginatively in a bed poster and stabbed himself: he was not mourned by any
character on stage nor by the audience. The decisive instructions of Lodovico
at the play’s denouement were a relief to an audience that saw a Venetian party
torn apart by fractious egotism. The maimed Iago knelt on the floor, upset only at his capture; bereft of repentance, he still tried to smirk at the corpses of the
people snared by his malice. Inwardly, we all concurred with “the censure of
this hellish villain”, (V.ii.366). This representation of a disgusting, shameless Iago was an unambiguous vision of a humanity debased and mutilated by pure evil
intent, the malign power of venomous thought. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Nelson’s Iago was not a cow but was certainly full of bull.
- Cries and Whispers. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Sweden, 1972.
- Delaney, Shelagh. A Taste of Honey. London: Methuen, 1990.
- Russell, Willy. Educating Rita. London: Samuel
- Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. E. A. J.
Honigmann. London: Arden, 2003.
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© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).