Othello – April 2006


By: A bastard child by William Shakespeare out of Feridun Zaimoglu

Directed by: Luk Perceval

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 28th April 2006

Where do I start? I was so angry with this production that I nearly left – some people did – not because it had been adapted from the original, but because so much had been lost in the adaptation that it was scarcely worth including it in a Shakespeare season, never mind a Complete Works Festival.

This was a nihilistic version of some aspects of the Othello that Shakespeare wrote. The light of Shakespeare’s play – Desdemona – was here believable as a potential slut, always draping herself provocatively over Othello and dragging him off to bed at every opportunity. She wasn’t actually played as a slut, and sexual game-playing with her husband doesn’t make her a lascivious wanton, but the grace, the dignity and the beauty of character had all gone. Take away the light of this play and all you get is dark, depressing sludge, and plenty of it. Admittedly, only for two hours (straight, without an interval – maybe they didn’t want to give the audience a chance to escape?). There were also a number of longueurs, such as Iago spending several minutes sweeping up bits of broken bottle following the drunken brawl that got Cassio into trouble. These actors were good, but not good enough to fill this gap with meaningful exchanges or development of character. Another long pause was filled only by the on-stage piano player, thrashing his piano vehemently, presumably to expand the range of sounds produced – good enough as far as it went, but it had nothing to add to the play or its performance for me.

Good points (there were a number). Interesting staging. Bare stage, apart from two pianos, a black grand piano resting on an upturned white one – good symbolism and a good focal point off which to bounce the acting. For example, Desdemona asleep, curled up in the space between the two instruments – touching and simple.

Stark lighting – an open doorway with light shafting from the left at the start shifted gradually to light shafting through a doorway on the right by the end. The actors were in plain modern dress and used no props other than a crate of beer bottles and a handkerchief. With all locations expunged, the performance becomes solely about the interactions between the characters.

There were some great performances. These actors know their job, and were giving it their all. Very athletically too, at times – Iago really did have to chase Amelia round the stage to get the hanky! On a quieter note, the scene where Iago had sidled his way into Othello’s confidence culminated in the final damning revelations being whispered in Othello’s ear, with the audience only hearing Othello’s responses. This replaced Othello’s overhearing and misunderstanding of Cassio’s innocent bragging about his own mistress, which gives him his final “proof” – here it was all down to Iago’s lies. A loss of subtlety, but it did keep the number of actors down and was well performed.

Casting a white actor unequivocally as Othello was bold and, to my mind, perfectly acceptable. Too many people seem to “ghettoise” the play nowadays, yet the situations portrayed are relevant to many times and cultures and do not always need to be interpreted literally on stage. The only ‘person of colour’ was the actress playing Amelia – a strange choice, done deliberately to generate the same feeling of discomfort the director experienced at a football match when some of his fellow supporters expressed racist sentiments. Sadly, this experience did not translate for me as the RSC, among many theatre companies in the UK, have practised colour-blind casting for so long that I wouldn’t have known the choice was deliberate if I hadn’t been told.

There were technical problems, too. It wasn’t possible to read the surtitles and really take in what was happening on stage. The adaptation was in German, and the actors were encouraged by the director to improvise if they felt like it, so the surtitles were stopping dead at some points and going like the clappers at others trying to keep up! But the main problem lay in the adaptation itself. The German author (of Turkish descent) who adapted the play had cut so much that it hardly seems worthwhile staging it. His constant use of swearing wasn’t out of place, given the military setting, but Will manages to convey the setting perfectly well without recourse to foul language all the time (though he used it when he wanted to). And the wonderful language Will does use is virtually absent here; just a couple of passing references in the surtitles, one or two phrases to remind us of what we’re missing.

And what we miss! This version of the play was basically over when Othello killed his bride – no revelations from Amelia, no remorse, and no capture of Iago. No context. And I find myself wondering what someone who had never seen the play before would have made of it, or whether they could even have understood it!

I managed to put my grumbles aside, and hackles down for long enough to stay for the post-show discussion, which illuminated for me some of the difficulties I had with the production. The director seemed to think he was directing an adaptation based on Shakespeare’s work, yet couldn’t remember the lines in Shakespeare’s version that had triggered his particular interpretation, namely that Amelia was the most important character in the play, and her hurt is what leads to her betraying Iago (which she doesn’t get a chance to do in this version). Perhaps there were problems in translation, but that’s how I understood what was said, and from that I suspected that the adaptor and director had been sidetracked into their own preoccupations and lost the expansion that comes from working with Shakespeare’s text in full. Instead they had contracted to a negative focus, which certainly appealed to a number of that night’s audience, but which failed to engage me emotionally, mentally or imaginatively, a difficult trick with one of Will’s plays. The director also made the point that the play shows how much words affect our minds. True, but you don’t have to hack the play to bits to get that across; the original version can do that, and even better!

But the main tragedy was to lose all that beautiful language! A perceptive young lady sitting behind me, who had just found out that we were going to see an adaptation instead of the real thing, asked her neighbour before the start “Isn’t Shakespeare’s language the whole point?” In this case, yes it is.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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