Our third view of Othello/Otello in these pages was a fascinating combination of the previous two.
In reverse back-to-back order from 2007 (this year, The Merchant of Venice opens a day after the famed tale of doubt, jealousy and ambition), Othello’s venue has shifted from the ever-so rectangular Tom Patterson Theatre where director David Latham made full use of the “you are there” stage—notably a shipwreck for the ages. Now in the dowager-like Avon, director Chris Abraham has taken a decidedly operatic approach, which—visually—works almost perfectly (the bedroom’s sheer drapes spoiling sightlines at pivotal moments for some) but loses its way in the sound.
In Verdi’s world (so brilliantly brought to the stage and screen by Franco Zeffirelli, where tenor superstar Plácido Domingo effectively used the dark side of his voice when his skin couldn’t pass present-day, politically correct muster), the famed opera’s near-relentless current of music (instrumental and vocal), continues to be a benchmark of ebb and flow in service of the story’s powerful messages (as varied as those can: it’s in the ear and mind of the beholder).
In this production, composer Thomas Ryder Payne has attempted to provide a similar effect with deft set pieces of orchestration, an engaging song and a brooding soundscape that seldom lets the players speak in silence. In the larger-than-life scenes, the music is most certainly at one with the action, yet when the volume is turned down theatrically (one or two actors speaking), the accompaniment gets in the way of anyone’s complete understanding of Shakespeare’s brilliant text: please, either turn it down or edit away.
The design team supports the operatic view with a magnificent combination of beautifully textured, floor-to-fly tower paneling (surrounding an angled, revolving platform that quite literally moves the actors from scene to scene) and an array of lighting that ideally underscores the over-arching drama and the individuals who fuel every action. The costuming is superb.
Consumed as he is with the grand design, Abraham lets his talented cast play on the vision rather than within it. Key to everything, of course, is Iago. Graham Abbey delivers the complex role with a tone that declaims his hateful intent but a visage and body language that belies his evil core. As Othello, Dion Johnstone is a marvel of diction and gesture (the epileptic seizure is a brilliant example of detail and timing). Taken together—as they must be for any production to succeed—the black Moor, whose cunning and strength on the battlefield are legendary, strains credibility with his apparent naïveté in all other aspects of life. Had his nemesis managed to bewitch the mighty target rather than merely lure him into the litany of lies, Othello’s descent into deadly madness would have far more truly and convincingly fuelled the searing tragedy, potentially producing an unforgettable result.
Much more than in opera—where all manner of storyline deficiencies are readily forgiven if the arias and choruses are of sufficient quality—stage versions based on the same material need to do the reverse and put the music in service of the plot. JWR