Othello at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London, April 2017
Reviewed by Madison Doss, Burning Coal Theatre Company
The issue of race in Othello is inescapable—and it should be. Ellen McDougall, director of the Globe’s most recent production of Othello, acknowledges that “productions must take responsibility for the racism, misogyny, and sexual violence in both the language and dramatic action of the play whilst staying true to Shakespeare’s original intentions.” I completely agree, and no production of Othello should seek to skirt around the play’s obvious violence and manipulation.
Somehow, though, McDougall manages to miss the abrupt racism Shakespeare presents in Othello despite every attempt to emphasize it. She explained, “Our production seeks to evolve the Elizabethan terms and euphemism for sexual acts, organs, racist slurs and misogynist ‘banter’ that have, in intervening years, lost their meaning and impact. By updating certain words, we want to honour the ‘shock value’ of Shakespeare’s original work.” Unfortunately, it’s this “evolution” of Shakespeare’s language that causes the play’s racist comments to fall flat.
In fact, the seeming disregard for Shakespeare’s original language can generate a feeling of confusion. The changes in language sounded vaguely Shakespearean, but it was clear something wasn’t quite right. There was an attempt to capture the lyrical nature of the original language, but the stark contrast between Shakespeare’s voice and the rewrites created an unmistakable abruptness, a reminder that no one does Shakespeare better than the Bard himself.
Furthermore, the overemphasis of the Cassio plot in comparison to Iago’s issues with Othello’s blackness in effect diminished the plays’ obvious racism. The one or two comments about Othello’s race that Iago was permitted to speak were passed by with little, if any, embellishment. The fact that a black woman, Thalissa Teizeira, was cast as Emilia should have allowed the actors to explore Iago’s racism. Iago’s questionable treatment of Emilia in the text could have been either attributed to racism or shown to have been the cause of his racism. Emilia does “nothing but to please his fantasy” and gives into his requests (such as, acquiring Desdemona’s handkerchief) despite his public disrespect of her. Her race in this production could have explained this vocalized distaste and given further reason for his hatred for Othello.
There is no arguing that Iago is evil, one of many Shakespeare villains who appears to lack a single redeeming quality, but Sam Spruell (Iago) does not expose this true nature; he did not bestow his Iago with the necessary evil with which Shakespeare entrusted him. Iago’s villainy is clear. He asks his “medicine” to “work on”; yet, the only glimpse of Iago’s villainy the audience saw was in his graphic murder of Emilia. Shortly thereafter, Iago stood above the dead bodies of Desdemona, Emilia, and Othello with his mouth agape, a dumbfounded look plastered on his face. He seemed to be confused as to why three people were dead, questioning why others assumed he was at fault. The choice in this final expression—whether it was Spruell’s or McDougall’s—ruined any chance of the audience understanding Iago as the play’s real villain. It would be a stretch to assume Iago did not understand his actions would lead to such as destruction as he continually relishes Othello’s decaying sanity. An Iago who does not know he’s the master manipulator is not an Iago at all.
Aside from its distracting failures, McDougall’s production did have several redeeming qualities. Firstly, the production took full advantage of the candlelit theatre, manipulating the mood by snuffing out or relighting the candles. Darkness descended on the whole theatre when darkness descended on the characters. Secondly, both Teizeira (Emilia) and Kurt Egyiawan (Othello) are absolutely brilliant in capturing their characters’ relationships and emotional shifts. For example, Teizeira starts the play calm and composed, offering her advice to Desdemona free of judgement. By the time Desdemona is distraught over her decaying marriage, Emilia’s frustration is clear. Eqyiawan, too, grew less passive as the play progressed. He chose to capture Othello’s downfall with anger as opposed to sadness, the precipice of his performance being the destruction of a mirror. Finally, my favorite thing about this production was that it truly did capture the misogyny McDougall set out to explore. At the end of the play, Desdemona and Emilia lay dead on a bed upstage center, Cassio (played by Joanna Horton, a woman) bleeds to death downstage right, and Bianca is gagged and tied in downstage left. The women of Othello are so often overshadowed by Iago and Othello himself, but this production doesn’t ignore them. Instead, it highlights McDougall’s interpreted misogyny without having to change a word.