Othello, dir. Daria Bukvic. Tr. Esther Duysker. Het Nationale Theater. Utrecht, Podium Hoge Woerd, 24 February 2018.
Review by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)
Few recent Dutch Shakespeare productions have come in for more advance publicity than this Othello. Indeed, it was a remarkable production. For director Daria Bukvic, the central issue of Othello was race: so far no surprises. Yet that idea was carried through down to the smallest detail, and, as we shall see later, worked out in a surprise ending. Othello was of course played by a black actor, while all the other actors were not just Caucasian, but really white, in the sense that their clothes, down to their shoes, and even their hair or rather, wigs, were absolutely white. When the setting changed to Cyprus, white flags were placed around the triangular playing space. Othello, too, wore white clothing—a stylised uniform like that of the other soldiers. Even the handkerchief was white, with a small red border. Contrasting with that glaring whiteness was the shiny black floor, and the equally dark backdrop.
At crucial moments, the colour contrast was reinforced by the grouping of the characters. The play opened with Desdemona, in a dress of white lace, and Othello, standing front stage, left and right, watching each other. Desdemona made the first move towards Othello, as befits a modern emancipated woman, and soon they were entangled in a passionate dance. While they were thus absorbed in each other, the other actors gathered upstage, staring at the mixed couple, as if judging them. This opposition between the white community, standing on one side, and black Othello was to return at the end of the play, with even Desdemona grouped with the white characters.
In this thorough-going focus on race there was no place for religious dividing lines. Othello’s baptism (possibly suggesting conversion later in life) was not mentioned, and he asked Desdemona not whether she had “prayed tonight,” but whether she had cried that day (because he had, he told her). The appellation “Moor,” suggesting Muslim origin, was often rendered as “negro,” or even as “savage.”
Even though the Duke (1.3) was a dignified woman, Venice was not devoid of sexism either, and the party at Cyprus featured Bianca as a pole dancer. Still, Iago’s arguments that swayed Othello were mostly concerned with race, not with the nature of Venetian women. His sexist jokes on different types of women (2.1) were translated as unambiguously racist, focussing on skin colour: a pretty black woman can find herself a white man, he suggested. Yet Iago’s motivation was more complex: when he spoke the cryptic words, “I am not what I am,” he bent towards the shiny black floor, admiring his own reflection in a posture reminiscent of Dali’s or Caravaggio’s Narcissus. A political dimension was added to this when he took his leave of Othello after the temptation scene. “At your service,” he said, in English—a phrase that for Dutch audiences evokes the favourite expression of maverick politician Pim Fortuyn, well-known for his Narcissism, who spearheaded the movement towards anti-immigrant populism at the beginning of the century. Rick Paul van Mulligen made a convincing Iago, a twisted yet intelligent man who had a weak milksop like Roderigo eat out of his hand. Yet, he was also patronised by Cassio and Desdemona, who smirked at his jokes, obviously congratulating themselves on being too liberal and urbane for his ilk. Desdemona called him “vulgar and limited,” while he in turn characterised Cassio as an elitist of the old school tie. A thwarted narcissistic personality, angry at not being taken seriously, Iago found an outlet in racism and misogyny. He callously insulted Emilia to her face, which she pretended not to understand.
Othello was a credible soldier: decisive as a leader, yet out of his depth when it came to addressing the senate. His claim that he was “rude” in his “speech” (1.3.81) here did not ring false: he seemed truly intimidated by the political authorities. Yet this production did not follow the usual interpretation of Othello, as the story of murderous rage springing from a racial or class-based inferiority complex: the ending, in a clear deviation from Shakespeare’s script, exposed that as a white-authored myth. As early as 4.1.235ff, when Othello is supposed to slap Desdemona in the presence of Ludovico, we saw a foreshadowing of this. Othello did not in fact hit Desdemona; it was merely Iago who spoke the stage direction, repeatedly, but Othello failed to act on it. Nevertheless Ludovico asked whether this was the “noble savage” (instead of “the noble Moor,” 4.1.261), and concluded: “Once a savage, always a savage.” Likewise, towards the climax, when Othello was scripted to murder Desdemona, he actually kissed her, and walked away from the bed. Iago spoke the stage direction: “Othello kills Desdemona.” While Desdemona sat on the bed, gesturing that she was alive and well, the other white characters gathered around her and joined in Iago’s accusations: Emilia hysterically accused Othello of murdering her mistress; Ludovico joined in, and the chorus of white bystanders kept repeating that “the negro has killed his wife.” As Desdemona sat among them, stunned, Othello seemed totally isolated, confronted by a monolithic white community, yet refusing to follow its script. Iago again intoned the stage direction: “Othello takes his weapon and kills himself.” Desdemona yelled at Othello not to do so; and in fact he drew himself up, and asked Desdemona, very calmly, “Are you afraid of me?” Then he turned towards the audience, and repeated the question to them. “That is a vain fear,” he added; and he spoke of loving not wisely but too well, omitting the self-accusatory passage on the base Indian (5.2.352, 356). When Othello refused to follow the white-authored script, Iago grabbed a sheet and strangled him from behind; this was followed by an immediate blackout. Thus, in this production the myth of the murderous jealousy of the insecure black lover was shown up for what it is: a white script, inspired by fear of the other.
That the script of the black man’s murderous rage is in fact a projection produced by white culture was also underlined by other elements: the stakes delimiting the playing space, meant to evoke gallows, and the fact that Emilia sang not the willow song, but Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Thus, this production ended up not just staging, but simultaneously deconstructing Shakespeare’s Othello.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.