Seeing a pair of Shakespeare’s Venetian plays back-to-back that have racism at their root is much more than twin illumination on a universal theme. In The Merchant of Venice, the greedy Shylock is most severely judged and foiled by cross-dressing Christians. Less than a day later (and set in period rather than funk-track modern day), the black Moor, Othello (played with blind passion by Philip Akin)—a brilliant tactician and warrior in battle—boldly elopes with Desdemona (Claire Jullien). She’s the nubile, ever-so-white daughter of Venetian senator (and, in that sense the general’s boss), Brabantio (Stephen Russell), only to believe the circumstantial evidence of his passed-over-for-promotion Ancient, Iago (two-dozen performances from now, Jonathan Goad may well own the conniving role), that his otherwise virtuous new bride is a whore.
Seen in 2007, the shock and horror of an interracial coupling is largely shrugged off, apart from the few unsaid size jokes from jealous, ignorant men, and fantasy flashes of what “it” would be like by unworldly women and their daughters. With that in mind, Othello becomes a more difficult piece to make relevant to today’s audience. Thank goodness for director David Latham who has lovingly crafted a production that fires on nearly all cylinders, digging far beneath the sheen of colour that may have blinded earlier presenters and partakers alike.
Designer Carolyn Smith has taken full advantage of the rectangular space of the Tom Patterson Theatre to recreate a sea-port quay and castle in Cyprus. Along with Michael Whitfield’s lighting we weather the violent storm that drowns the Turkish invaders and washes the instantly victorious Othello and his entourage ashore. The grateful Cypriots, headed by Governor Montano (Brad Rudy is marvelously efficient and cowardly when confronted with violence from the saviour troops) revel in their freedom and look forward to the evening’s celebration, courtesy of the unbeatable general.
But there’s dirty work at the crossroads. The scheming Iago longs to disgrace Lieutenant Cassio (a first-rate performance by Jeffrey Wetsch, naïve and dutifully bold as required) and take his rightful place as Othello’s right-hand man. He fraudulently employs the love-smitten Roderigo (Gordon Miller plays the dupe with vigour) and a wine-drinking contest to loosen inhibitions, ignite hot tempers and—in the best tradition of Ben Hur script direction—“they fight.” Here’s where the long stage and John Stead’s fight direction combine to telling effect, producing one of the finest moments of mayhem yet seen in Stratford. When the dust settles, the inebriated Cassio is demoted. Round one to Iago.
Phase 2 of Iago’s plan is to convince the hapless soldier to appeal to Desdemona to use her considerable influence and have Cassio reinstated. The grateful wretch thanks his fount of treachery and proceeds to the lady’s chambers to press his case.
This suits Iago to a tee, as his real purpose is thrusting the disgraced soldier and his general’s wife into each other’s company so as to kindle the flames of jealousy in Othello and rid himself of Cassio once and for all.
Along the path of deceit and two-faced loyalty, Iago manages to take possession of an embroidered handkerchief—Othello’s first gift of unending love to his faithful bride. The esteemed hanky was scooped up by Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting and Iago’s wife, Emilia (Lucy Peacock gives a marvelously textured tone that knows just when to simmer or burn).
Before you can say “framed by a friend” the symbolic gift finds its way to Cassio’s lodgings, where its unwitting retrieval will have deadly effect. Then begins Iago’s finest hour as, bit by bit, he poisons Othello’s mind with the totally fabricated tale of Desdemona’s torrid affairs. The proof? Ask her to produce the handkerchief—what ho! It’s found in Cassio’s lodging?!
Like the draughts of wine that made Cassio an easy target, Othello’s overly jealous imagination soon fills in the gaps without benefit of concrete facts. The passion has vanished even after the bold kiss on stage (the shock of which, until more recent times, was muted by having white men use black face paint to play the role, not least of which was Plácido Domingo’s fabled film version of Verdi’s opera by the same name) cemented their love.
Soon, the body count rises as the curtain falls.
Like his Jewish counterpart, black Othello has a disastrous end. But in 2007, it’s neither creed nor colour that’s really done them in but their own greed (money or fidelity) and insatiable desire for revenge that brings Shakespeare’s truth into far more compelling light. JWR