Judging by audience laughter at some of Iago’s famous lines on opening night, there are many people who do not know the play Othello. So, a brief synopsis:
Iago opens the play by complaining to Roderigo that Iago has been passed over for promotion. Venice’s trusted general, Othello, a black officer with many years of military service to Venice, has chosen the young untried Cassio for his lieutenant, leaving Iago his ancient, his third in command, his flag-bearer. Iago fumes in anger and vows:
“I follow him to serve my turn upon him.”
Though Othello is the titular hero of the play, Iago has the second most lines of any Shakespeare character, after Hamlet.
Othello, in spite of bold-faced prejudice against the colour of his skin, wins the love of a Senator’s daughter, Desdemona, and marries her.
Iago sees an opportunity to bring Othello down by inventing an affair between Cassio and Desdemona. He means to lead Othello to jealous rage. He thinks this will be easy because:
“The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so;
And will as tenderly be led by the nose as asses are.”
Good news first. Michael Swatton’s Iago is cunning, supremely articulate, deceitful … and evil incarnate.
Iago will say and do anything to manipulate others and further his aims. To Cassio, Iago says:
“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition”.
But to Othello he says:
“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord
Is the immediate jewel of their souls”
“But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.”
Swatton draws the audience in with his eight soliloquies. We cringe at being his confidants, but cannot take our eyes off him, even as his words and actions terrify us. Swatton has been in Ottawa for only a year, but audiences will want to see him again in future productions.
Chris Lucas, as Othello, is a bear of a man who commands the stage physically and vocally. With sword in hand, Lucas convincingly threatens and subdues attackers, who outnumber him, with one menacing line:
“Keep up your bright swords, for dew will rust them.”
His would-be attackers, and we the audience, believe that Othello will leave them and their swords lying on the ground if they attack.
Lucas’s booming voice is enough to send soldiers and servants scurrying to obey him. Othello is a giant among men, facing down prejudice and enemies to rise to the rank of general in defence of the state of Venice. As Desdemona’s uncle Lodovico testifies:
“The noble Moor whom our full senate
Call all-in-all sufficient …
the nature Whom passion could not shake …
Whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce”.
But Lucas faces another challenge – what do to about, as critic Harold Bloom puts it, “the many enigmas of Othello”. Critics have extensively debated why Othello is so quickly misled by Iago. In Othello’s defence, Iago deceives all those around him. Everyone calls him “honest Iago”. Only we the audience are privy to his villainy. Yet even before Iago presents any proof of Desdemona’s alleged infidelity, Iago says:
“The Moor already changes with my poison”
Lucas doesn’t help us to understand why Othello is so easily manipulated.
Director Don Fox has chosen to stage this production in Civil War-era America. Othello wears a Union officer’s uniform. Similarly, Iago and Cassio are garbed in Union blue. While there were no black generals in Lincoln’s army, there were black officers up to the rank of major. Those black officers faced prejudice (as does Othello) from within their own army. Nor has racism disappeared from modern day America, so the staging is relevant to today.
Harold Bloom wrote that “properly performed, Othello should be a momentary trauma for its audience.” Between Iago’s perfidy and the several scenes of violence in Othello, there is plenty of opportunity to traumatize the audience. In all instances, Fex achieves that goal. Fight choreographer Aaron Lajeunesse makes every blow visceral to the audience.
But I found myself questioning one important piece of Fex’s direction. In Act III, Scene iii, Othello says:
“Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore”.
Shakespeare’s direction in the text is “Taking him by the throat”. In other productions I’ve seen, Othello’s action is violent but unpremeditated.
Under Fex’s direction, Othello carries a heavy set of stocks on stage, an action that is clearly premeditated. He doesn’t take Iago by the throat. He clamps Iago’s throat in the stocks. He then produces a long switch and viciously beats his threats into Iago’s back.
Traumatizing to the audience, but to what end? How does it further the text? How is it justified by the text to have a black Union general beat his white officer onstage. Yes, Iago is familiar with the use of the lash, both in Venice and in Civil War America. But beyond the shock value, what insight does this beating give us into Othello’s motivation? I find no guidance in the text. Rather, the incident undermines my willing disbelief.
This production drew much audience reaction. Intermission rang with lively discussion. The opening night audience rose to its feet at the end of the performance.
I can unreservedly recommend Michael Swatton’s performance as Iago. Watch for him in the future, Ottawa.
I recognize Chris Lucas’s commanding presence as Othello. But neither he nor director Don Fox convinces me why Othello is so quickly misled. Nor am I convinced that Fex’s whipping scene is in keeping with the play or the character.
If you see Othello for Swatton’s performance, I commend your choice. If you give this Othello a pass, I will understand.
Othello by Theatre Kraken is playing at The Gladstone Theatre February 2-10. Tuesday to Saturday shows are at 7:30pm, Sunday matinee is at 2:30pm. Tickets are available online: adult tickets are $39 (including HST), senior tickets are $35 and student/artist/unwaged tickets are $23.