Feb. 2nd, 2017 12:33 am
lillibet: (Default)
[personal profile] lillibet
Before I've totally forgotten, I want to reflect on the production of Othello that we saw over my birthday weekend in New York. Starring David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig, it is a phenomenally muscular production and one of the best directed pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

The surroundings are very spare: an unpainted plywood box makes up the performance space--walls, ceiling, floor, with tiers of benches for the audience built along three sides of the long, narrow stage. There is no other set, just mattresses strewn on the floor. The lighting is provided by worklights and practicals--at one point a cellphone--and one panel of LEDs to provide occasional washes of color, but several scenes are played in the dark. Rather than shutting us out, the darkness draws us in, forcing us to listen in a box that reflects every breath, every whisper. When we can see the cast, they can see us, and they can never be more than ten feet from some part of the audience. We are in the scene, we are helpless witnesses to Iago's perfidy, we are complicit in Desdemona's murder.

While the two stars shine darkly, the whole ensemble of twelve is beautifully woven together. The men who play the minor roles are soldiers--hanging out in a room inspired by forward operating bases used in Afghanistan and Iraq, carrying modern weapons, playing Guitar Hero in their downtime. One of the actors has a prosthetic leg. We are constantly reminded that Othello is a story of wartime.

The characters are very specific. Desdemona, often treated more like a plot device, is a real character here, with her own motivation and arc. Jason found Roderigo oddly effeminate--on reflection I think that was intended as a contrast with the soliders. Emilia is a toned military wife, able to give as good as she gets. Her race is one of the most interesting choices of this show--if Iago is married to a black woman, what spin does that give his slurs of Othello's skin color, and his fears of being cuckolded by his commander. Bianca, who is very sketchily drawn in the script, is played as a Turkish woman--a local woman accepting flirtation and gifts from the soldiers occupying her home and with the simple detail of a headscarf becomes suddenly very real.

But this is Othello and Iago's show. They are like wrestlers, constantly vying with each other, the one always testing the strength of the better man, looking to turn his own virtues against him. Both completely at home within the language and able to make it feel spontaneous, immediate, vital. The one odd inconsistency was both actors' accents--while I could almost justify Craig's slippage as wily code-switching, Oyelowo's intermittent Nigerian accent was harder to rationalize, but the rolling tones of it were beautiful and underscored his story of an outsider and former slave. Both actors have enough charisma to fill a much larger space and the constant challenge of each other's presence kept the energy driving throughout the three hour show.

Sam Gold's cut of the script was phenomenal. He pared it down to the point that we could feel Iago's barbs stabbing one by one into Othello's mind, cut away the unnecessary, and kept the whole thing moving from start to inevitable finish. I do not love Othello as I do some of Shakespeare's work--it is too tragic, too evil for me to truly enjoy--but this production was glorious. The tension was powerful, rather than torturous, and I was riveted throughout. Every moment was thought out and directed with a singular vision, without ever feeling over-controlled. An amazing feat of directorial skill, this easily leapt into the top five shows I have ever seen, and vies for the best production of Shakespeare's work I have ever witnessed. What a privilege.
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