A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

This sell-out production by the Royal Shakespeare Company has moved to London, and what a production it is!  Gregory Doran’s staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy in London’s intimate new Trafalgar Studios Theatre creates immediacy and impact.  Antony Sher is electrifying as his Iago is the epitome of racial hatred, a hard-bitten, envious, malicious soldier among whose first words are “I hate the Moor.”  In contrast, Sello Maake ka Ncube’s Othello is a dignified, calm general, whose first utterance, to attackers surrounding him, “Put up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them,” have not only beauty but a  rhythm that marks him as an alien, a black among whites in Venice, a quiet voice of confidence in the confusion.

 Both actors being South Africans, they know racial prejudice at first hand, as Mr. Sher recounts in his autobiography.  This experience he adds to his characterization of Iago, mocking Othello with monkey gestures behind his back or over his prostrate figure.  Directly addressing his soliloquies to the audience, he exposes his evil plot to arose Othello’s jealousy of Cassio (awarded the rank Iago wanted) and thus entrap, as in a web, both men and Othello’s wife, Desdemona.  Mr. Sher also indicates, through delivery and gesture, Iago’s perverted sexual obsessions: as he goes to massage his wife’s shoulders, his fingers take on a life of their own and make as if to strangle her; twice he admits to the audience that he suspects her of committing adultery with Othello.  When he soliloquizes about Desdemona, he tells us “Now I do love her too,” and this he demonstrates when embracing as if to console her, or by fondling her stockings in her open trunk.

As Mr. Mcube’s Othello becomes more and more distraught under Iago’s insinuations about Desdemona’s supposed infidelity, he progressively reverts to his African roots, as did Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones.  In the central scene where Iago first casually  mentions Cassio’s attentiveness to Desdemona and then progresses to making Othello believe she is unfaithful – “naked in bed” with “other proofs” – his anger and vow of revenge take the form of a tribal rite as he stamps, stoops, and twists his body, arms aloft.

Lisa Dillon is a perfect Desdemona – beautiful, blonde, fragile, able to defy her father in the Senate and defend her marriage, but too young and inexperienced to counter Othello’s accusations, and too devastated to fight back when he strikes her and calls her a whore.  Amanda Harris’s excellent portrayal of  Emilia stands in contrast: wiser, yet driven to drink by husband Iago, whom she hopes to please by giving him Desdemona’s handkerchief, with tragic results.  In the final scene, Ms. Harris expertly changes from a cynic to a near-virago, exposing the murder, demanding justice, and haranguing Iago (who stabs her in the crotch).

The setting in Cyprus as a colonial outpost, with its high, metal-link gates topped with barbed wire, and its hard-drinking soldiers suggests a post-World War II period, with the women in calf-length dresses and hairdos of that era.  Necessary properties are carried on, like the bed in the last act, requiring the curtains around it to be “flown” or lowered from above.  This mosquito-net hanging completely surrounds the bed, except for an exit at the back, hampering action in this important scene.  But as the events move swiftly to the “tragic loading” of the bed, the tragic impact is fully realized, with unrepentant Iago kneeling and vowing never to reveal the reason for his behavior – because he does not know it.