Stage Door Review
Friday, June 14, 2019
by William Shakespeare, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
May 27-October 27, 2019
Iago: “Men should be what they seem”
Michael Blake has become such a fine actor during his eight years at Stratford that it is a great pity his first chance of playing Othello should be in such a deeply flawed production. Lacking a plausible Desdemona and a menacing Iago, Blake is forced to act his part essentially on his own without reaping the dramatic reward that a truly equal interplay of actors should create. Odd design choices only add to our general alienation from what is one of Shakespeare’s most devastating tragedies.
The problems with this, the Stratford Festival’s eighth production of Othello, begin right from the start with the set and projection design of Denyce Karn. Karn has covered the entire wall behind the thrust stage with cloth on stretchers leaving only three spaces to serve as entrances. The huge cloth serves as a screen for her projections. These begin simply as animated black-and-white sketches of architectural detail being added to surround each entrance. Then the projections begin to take the place of full-scale scene drops to change location.
Unfortunately, Karn does not stop there. During each of Iago’s monologues the projections show gooey matter looking like foam insulation being exuded all over the screens. Sometimes this is coupled with pictures of explosions, blood dripping down walls or cracks breaking all through the back wall. The problem is that there is no clear way to understand these images. When they stand in for a location, we wonder why they are depicted as designer’s sketches rather than the finished picture. The clouds, if that’s what they are, and explosions seem meant to reflect Iago’s state of mind, but why do we shift from the objectivity of set design to the expression of the point of view of a single mind? And why is that mind Iago’s and not Othello’s? The projections then switch to images of growing cracks as an interpretation of the action as rifts grow between characters. Except in the case of depicting locations, the actors and the director should be in charge of interpreting the action or the state of a character’s mind, not the designer. And in all three styles, Karn’s animations attract attention away from Shakespeare’s words.
Karn and director Nigel Shawn Williams have relocated the action to the present. With than comes the now boring requirement that all soldiers wear camouflage outfits. What doesn’t make sense is that they do so not merely in combat but even at formal occasions. When we first meet Othello in Venice, he is wearing an Italian-style double-breasted suit. When he is Governor of Cyprus receiving a formal embassy from Lodovico, he is surprisingly wearing camo. Where are his formal military uniform and his medals?
Karn particularly fails when costuming Desdemona. She arrives in Cyprus wearing leggings and a mini-skirt split up to the waist. She looks more like a teenaged tourist than the wife of a general and governor. Karns continues to garb her as a clueless, low-class teen to the end and at no time does she ever look “a most exquisite lady” as Cassio calls her.
The second main problem with the production is Gordon S. Miller’s portrayal of Iago. Miller has given many fine performances in his past twelve seasons, most notable as Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bakkhai in 2017. Here he totally misses the complexity of Iago’s nature by playing Iago as a clown. It may seem hard to believe but Miller’s flippant delivery of Iago’ lines has the dubious distinction of generating more laughter than I’ve seen any other Iago achieve. Whenever he pronounces “love” as “lu-u-uv”, he sound like like some 1960s sex guru not a dangerous villain.
Miller fails because he is not in full control of his speech much less its subtext. He speaks too quickly, his diction is not clear and he takes pauses at unusual times which means that much of what he says sounds garbled – a major error when Iago is the prime manipulator of the plot. Miller may be attempting to lend Iago’s speech a mocking tone, but he succeeds only in making him sound glib and ironic. What is totally missing until the last moments of the play is any sense of menace, and with that loss, any sense of danger in the play in general. It is as if Miller is allowing Karns’s animations to do the work for him.
A fault that is more part of Williams’s direction than Miller’s performance is the lack of any point of view on Iago’s motivation. The idea by Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) that Iago represents “motiveless malignity” has had such impact that it is still being debated today. One need only look closely at the text, however, to see that Iago quite clearly states his motive at the start of the play. He is angry at Othello for promoting Cassio over him to be his lieutenant and he is angry at Cassio for receiving the promotion.
The key point, made clear in the RSC production of Othello directed by Michael Attenborough in 2000 is that it is Iago who is most consumed by jealousy in the play, not Othello. Attenborough’s production also demonstrated that Iago has no clear plan of what his revenge will be. Iago keeps restating his purpose and revising his plot, because he is improvising and his plans are constantly on the point of being discovered. As Iago says, before the bedchamber scene, “This is the night / That either makes me or fordoes me quite”.
Therefore, what the director should communicate through the actor playing Iago is the character’s growing feeling of desperation as his plans take on a momentum that he cannot control. The mere fact that Iago is forced to murder his wife Emilia in front of witnesses to keep her from speaking out simply shows how desperate he has become. Sadly, neither Williams in his direction nor Miller in his performance come close to finding this throughline in Iago’s behaviour.
If Othello is lacking a convincing opponent in the production, he is also lacking a convincing companion. Amelia Sargisson is completely out of her depth as Desdemona and it was unfair to her for the Festival to cast her in such a major role after having been with the company one year. Her voice is largely unmodulated and the effort of projection robs it of any nuance. Desdemona is frequently said to be innocent, but that doesn’t mean she is weak or witless. After all, she had strength of will enough break from her father’s wishes in marrying Othello and she has so much power that Iago says of her, “Our general's wife is now the general”. Sargisson conveys nothing of this, and the fact that Karns has dressed her as a not very style-conscious millennial only increases our negative impression.
Given that he must play he role without support, Michael Blake still manages to give an exemplary performance as Othello. He gives us an Othello who does have exactly the “free and open nature” everyone says he has. He brushes off Brabantio’s racist accusations of witchcraft with an Obama-like mixture of good-humour and dignity. Blake carefully demonstrates how what Othello at first takes to be a joke of Iago’s begins to bore into his mind like a parasite and germinate there until it completely takes over. Shakespeare portrays this as the progress of a disease that Iago nurtures rather than stifles and Blake follows this portrayal closely. In fact, Othello’s fit of epilepsy, which often feels extraneous to the story, in Blake’s hands seems simply like an outward manifestation of his inward turmoil. Blake make’s Othello’s suicide no desperate act but lends it something akin to the seppuku of a disgraced samurai.
The production does include other fine performance but of characters who are not in such close contact with Othello as are Iago and Desdemona. It is interesting to reimagine Emilia as Desdemona’s military guard rather her servant, but Williams and Karn have given Venice a Duchess (Michelle Giroux) instead of a Doge so it makes sense that the city-state would also allow women in its military. Laura Condlln makes this conceit work perfectly. Indeed, that fact that both Iago and his wife are soldiers only heightens the difference in their view of duty and honour. Condlln’s Emilia comes into her own in the last act, her cursing of the confounded Othello mingling pity and rage.
Johnathan Sousa succeeds in making Cassio a much more rounded character than usual, an essentially good man who is no more addicted to whoring than he is to drinking. Yet when Iago forces Cassio to get drunk, Sousa fully conveys the weight of dishonour that Othello’s new lieutenant feels he has brought on himself.
With Brabantio, Randy Hughson has been assigned yet another role as an angry old man, yet Hughson is able to give the character’s remarks such a sharp edge that his use of racial slurs in reference to Othello, a man he once liked, becomes a prelude to the fits of jealousy that both Iago and Othello will undergo. Farhang Ghajar does not play Roderigo so much like the usual fool as a fervent young man who has been duped by Iago into false hopes. Both Juan Chioran as Lodovico and Michelle Giroux as the Duchess of Venice provide examples of the dignity of the state that stands in such grave contrast first with the raving of Brabantio and later with the deeds of Othello and Iago.
Before the first lines are spoken Williams has Iago stand among a black-clad paramilitary group who are either protesting against the government of Venice or practising martial arts to the recorded hip-hop-like scratching of a turntablist. Iago is among them but doesn’t participate in their movements. If the group is meant to be a black protest group they may be dressed in black but are not all Black themselves. And if they were, why would Iago be among them? What this all means is unclear. Nigel Shawn Williams has directed so many fine productions, such as last year’s To Kill a Mockingbird, that it is surprising to see him lose his usual clarity of vision here.
The Stratford Festival has a strange history of presenting unsatisfactory productions of Othello, as least judging from the previous four I have seen here. In some there is an imbalance of strength between Othello and Iago, usually on the side of Iago. To have an imbalance between Othello and both Iago and Desdemona is a highly unusual error. I would like to say that Michael Blake’s performance alone makes this Othello worth seeing, but Othello is a play about interaction and Blake, no matter how excellent his work, cannot make up for that lack on its own.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: Gordon S. Miller as Iago and Michael Blake as Othello; Randy Hughson as Brabantio, David Collins as Senator, John Kirkpatrick as Venetian Soldier, Michael Blake as Othello, Michael Spencer-Davis as Gratiano, Juan Chioran as Lodovico and Michelle Giroux as the Duchess of Venice; Amelia Sargisson as Desdemona and Michael Blake as Othello; Laura Condlln as Emilia. © 2019 David Hou.
For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.