Othello – October 2011

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Daniel Evans

Venue: Crucible Theatre

Date: Monday 3rd October 2011

This was our maiden voyage as far as the Crucible is concerned. I found myself getting very excited – I love watching the snooker World Championships, and here I was, in the very building! I took a few minutes after we sat down to see where everything went for the snooker, so that I could put that to one side, and concentrate on the play.

The set was interesting, and effective. A large octagonal platform, sloping towards the front, occupied most of the space. There was a large eight-sided star design on it, suggesting the geometric patterns used in Islam, although it didn’t look particularly Islamic to me. The back wall was made of stone, with strategic gaps here and there. Two very tall wooden doors were placed in the middle, and there were mini arches along the top, along with some carving above the door. Some steps went nowhere on the left hand side – these were used as a platform for the herald, announcing the celebrations for Othello’s nuptials on Cyprus, and also supplied a sort of hiding place when required. Lights were lowered occasionally, and also the curtains for the wedding bed in the final act. Furniture was brought on and off as needed, and didn’t get in the way of the action. There were steps up to the platform all around the back of it. We sat to the left of the stage, and had an excellent view throughout – very little blocking, although we also saw a lot of backs through the performance.

The opening scene between Iago and Roderigo took a little while to get going for me. Dominic West had chosen a local accent for his Iago, and the unexpected sound took me by surprise. Silly really, given our location. Anyway I tuned in pretty quickly, and had very little difficulty later on. I still got the gist of the scene, and that was one of the great things about this production. They told the story really well, so that even when I didn’t catch all of the dialogue, I could see the characters’ emotions and thoughts clearly, as well as the connections of cause and effect which underpin this tragedy.

Roderigo was the same snivelling little brat we know and love so well from previous productions. Brabantio was weaker in this production than we’re used to, but he did well enough to keep the story going. I did like the way that Iago paused before the word ‘senator’ when replying to Brabantio’s insult ‘Thou art a villain’. As a general point, the exits and entrances didn’t exactly overlap as they do in some Shakespeare productions, but they were brisk, which helped to keep the running time down.

The next scene is our first sight of Othello, and Clarke Peters did a superb job with this part. In this scene he’s calm, reasoned and authoritative, stopping the fighting before anyone gets hurt. I did find myself wondering why Desdemona doesn’t appear at this point, although I accept her entrance has a better dramatic effect in the following scene, which starts with the Duke and two senators discussing the threat from the Turkish fleet. It’s always a bit absurd to have the various messages come so fast – the fleet must be travelling at a fair old clip to make such progress – but we’ll allow the artistic licence. This production made the political and military situation nice and clear, so the need for Othello’s services and the respect in which he’s held were well established by the end of this section.

When Desdemona enters she’s covered by a white veil. She removes it when asked to speak and gives it to Iago, who threw it aside. Roderigo must have retrieved it, as he’s clutching it later on. Now there’s always a dilemma when casting the young heroine parts in Shakespeare – do you go for a young, inexperienced actress who can easily represent youth, beauty, naivety, etc., or do you opt for a more experienced actress who can deliver the lines better, but whom the audience has to imagine to be a young girl? This dilemma was thrown into sharp relief for us earlier this year, when we heard Jane Lapotaire delivering a speech of Juliet’s at an event at the Birthplace Trust. No longer a young girl, she still had us believing every word of her speech, such was her ability to convey the thoughts and emotions in every line. The choice tonight was youth all the way, which may have engaged the younger audience members, but left us with a slightly weaker Desdemona than I would have liked to begin with. I warmed to her performance though, and she certainly made the age difference apparent.

When everyone else has left, Roderigo comes to centre stage, clutching the veil Desdemona has left behind, inhaling it to catch her scent, the poor fool. Iago has to work hard to talk him out of drowning himself, but of course he succeeds. His own plans are laid, and I felt his motivation was pretty clear tonight – he’s unhappy at his treatment by Othello, and only too ready to use the suspicion that Othello’s had his wife as justification for his wickedness. There were two significant things about this performance which made it stand out; one was Iago’s totally convincing acting when talking to Othello about Desdemona, and the other was his total presence, always listening intently to pick up extra clues that he can use to his own advantage. He noticed Desdemona’s line about Cassio ‘that came awooing with you’, and that triggered one of his questions to Othello later.

Back to the play: we’re now in Cyprus, and there’s a storm raging, which eventually disperses the Turkish fleet without harming any of the Venetian vessels – how fortunate. Yet again, they saw no need to drench everyone in real water to make the storm ‘real’, thank goodness. Desdemona’s banter with Iago seemed longer this time, and I understood more of it.

The action comes thick and fast now. I spotted that the fateful handkerchief is in Othello’s hand when he and Desdemona head off to bed. Later, Emilia comments that it was Othello’s first gift to Desdemona after their marriage, which explains why Cassio didn’t recognise it. The drinking bout soon had Cassio incapable, and almost without his breeches as well, sitting in a trunk. After the quarrel with Roderigo, Cassio injured Montano, whose wound only bled on the napkin and left his shirt untouched – very helpful to the wardrobe department, I’m sure. Iago’s apparent slip in fingering Michael Cassio as the cause of the rumpus was very well done, and again he acted completely like a man who wanted to help his friend, while actually digging a deeper hole for him to fall into. When he fired Cassio, Othello took his sword and cut through the sash of office which he was wearing – Iago wears a similar sash later on.

We were then ‘treated’ to the music, arranged by Cassio, which Othello is keen to stop. It was an odd combination of a stringed instrument and two woodwind; the tune began with the strings, then one of the woodwind instruments joined in, then the other – the tune was inappropriate and very funny, and I could understand Othello’s preference for silence. There are several short conversations, and then Othello and Iago come on stage just as Cassio leaves. This extended scene is crucial to the play; it’s where Iago begins to plant the seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind, and all Desdemona’s innocent behaviour begins to look deceitful.

A desk and a chair had been brought on towards the back of the stage, on the left side. Othello is dealing with paperwork, signing various documents, and Iago is folding them and tying them up with ribbon. Desdemona’s badgering of Othello is lively and successful, but once Iago gets going, the mood changes. From loving Desdemona completely, Othello becomes disturbed, then angry, and when Desdemona comes back to fetch him in to dinner, he’s seriously troubled. This is where Desdemona drops the handkerchief, not noticing it till too late. Emilia spots it, however, and actually stands over it to speak the first of her lines. She soon picks it up, and when Iago returns, she’s tucked it into her bodice. He gets it from her, after a little chasing round the stage, and then Othello returns, much disturbed by thoughts of jealousy.

This scene between the two men was very well done. I didn’t hear all of the lines, but the emotional charge was very powerful, and the way Iago was manipulating his victim was chillingly clear. He never let up for a moment. Even his plea to Othello to let Desdemona live was reminding Othello of his threat to ‘tear her all to pieces’. When Othello knelt to make his oath, cutting his hand to emphasise his commitment, Iago seized the opportunity to get even closer to the man he was working to destroy. He also knelt, and made an extravagant promise to serve Othello in his quest for revenge, and even though Othello had been constantly going on about how honest Iago was, this took their relationship to the next level. It was a gamble, but a successful one.

They took the interval after this scene, which was probably just as well, as we needed the break ourselves, never mind what the actors felt. The second half opened with some dramatic lighting, as I remember, but the next scene starts with the light-hearted banter among Desdemona, Emilia and the Clown. One of the things I’ve noticed going through the text to write these notes is how continuous the action is, with each scene depending on the preceding one, so there’s no real chance to change the scenes around. This came across very clearly in this production, with the flow of the story being very strong.

This scene continues with Othello’s request to see the handkerchief, and this is the first time that he’s been angry with Desdemona – it’s a shock to her, and to Emilia. I found myself thinking that all marriages go through their difficult phases; unfortunately, this difficult phase has been created by somebody else, which makes it impossible to resolve.

After Othello has left, Iago and Cassio enter, but Iago soon leaves to check on Othello, full of concern of course. When Desdemona and Emilia are just about to head off, I noticed another head peeping round the corner of the door at the back – it’s Bianca. She takes the handkerchief from Cassio and they leave, only for Iago and Othello to return. This is the scene where Othello’s emotions get so worked up that he collapses. I haven’t always bought into that bit, but this time Othello works himself up so much, fuelled by Iago’s promptings, that it seemed completely believable.

When Othello recovers, Iago sets up his biggest deception yet. With Othello ‘hiding’ by the stairs at the back, and then below the level of the platform, Iago easily gets Cassio to talk about Bianca. Othello is hugely affected by Cassio’s behaviour, especially when Bianca reappears and throws the handkerchief back at Cassio. After Iago and Othello have plotted the death of the two ‘lovers’, Lodovico turns up, and again we see Othello display even greater anger towards Desdemona, even hitting her. It’s a ghastly sight, and still the others are doing their best to make allowances for him.

When Othello questions Emilia, I did wonder why she doesn’t tell him about the handkerchief, given that she’s seen how upset Othello was about it, but of course Desdemona’s already lied about it, so she wouldn’t want to betray her. Later, when Iago is with the two women, I could see Emilia start to think when she talks about ‘some most villainous knave, some base notorious knave, some scurvy fellow’; knowing her husband as she does, and that he was deceived by someone about her, she began to look at him with a dawning realisation that the ‘scurvy knave’ may be very close to home. The women leave and Roderigo comes back, complaining yet again that Iago hasn’t delivered on his promises. He even throws Iago to the ground, causing Iago to show some pretend respect for the lad.

When Desdemona is preparing for bed, the eight-fold star outline on the stage is lit up beautifully. A couple of chests are brought on, and Emilia helps Desdemona out of her clothes, packing them away into one of the chests. When they leave, the light fades, and we’re back on the street with Iago and Roderigo, ready to attack Cassio. The scuffle was short and straightforward, leaving Roderigo dead. Then the bed itself is set up for the climactic scene, with the curtains dropping down from above. It became a little crowded by the end, for both Desdemona and Emilia were lying dead on it, side by side, and Othello managed to fit himself on as well, but at least it would have been comfortable enough by that time, for the two swords and a dagger which had been hidden in it had been removed. Quite the armoury, that bed.

The final scene was very moving. Throughout the play, I’d felt great sympathy for Othello. His suffering was plain to see once the jealous thoughts had taken hold, and it was clear that it was only Iago’s manipulation that put them there. His ‘recovery’ from the jealous pangs once Desdemona was dead led to even more suffering, as he realised what he’d done – not much consolation for her, of course, but still deserving of compassion.

We weren’t the only ones who’d enjoyed ourselves; they received a well-earned standing ovation at the end, and I leapt to my feet as well to join in. I noticed a look between Clarke Peters and Dominic West as they left the stage for the second time – what the hell, they might as well enjoy it, so they came back for another round of bows. How we loved it!

The most amazing thing about this production was the energy; I felt drawn in like never before. I’ve often found large chunks of Othello boring – not so tonight. Even though I couldn’t make out all of the dialogue, I was totally absorbed, and felt exhilarated at the end. The two leads worked really well together, and Alexandra Gilbreath was a much stronger Emilia than usual; the only comparable performance I can remember was Amanda Harris at the RSC quite a few years ago now. With such a young Desdemona, the balance between these four characters was different, but still worked really well.  I’m so glad we had such a great experience for our first visit here – we’ll be back.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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