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).

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 destructive energy.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

Works Cited


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© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).