This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
Desdemona, dir. Peter Sellars, script by Toni Morrison, music by Rokia Traoré, 19 July 2012 at the Barbican, London
By Erin Sullivan, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham
In her forward to the most recent Vintage Books edition of Beloved, Toni Morrison describes the ideas and feelings that overcame her as she sat down to write what would become her most celebrated novel. Drawn in by the story of Margaret Garner, a young mother in the nineteenth century who had murdered her child rather than let it be taken back into slavery, she wanted to write a novel about a woman who had found a way of ‘claim[ing] her own freedom’ at a time when so little was offered to her. In order to do this, to understand the haunting effects of not only the murdered baby’s memory, but of the whole institution of slavery and the horrible legacy it bequeathed both its willing and unwilling participants, Morrison writes that she had ‘to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts’, to allow ‘the order and quietude of everyday life’ to be ‘violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead’. In Beloved the past and its bumptious ghosts are always present, wrapping their arms around the houses, lives, and even necks of the living, strangling them with their desire to be remembered even as their survivors strive ‘to remember as close to nothing as [is] safe’, to start each day with the ‘serious work of beating back the past’.
The same might be said of Morrison’s new project, Desdemona, a collaboration between her, director Peter Sellars, and singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré, which resurrects the ghosts of Shakespeare’s female characters in Othello in order to rework, re-view, and re-member the events of this tragedy from their point of view. The setting is the underworld, a land of night shades inhabited by Desdemona herself (Tina Benko), her childhood maid Barbary (Rokia Traoré), two female singers wearing the same long white shift dresses and bare feet of the female leads (Fatim Kouyaté and Bintou Soumbounou), and two male musicians seated, off and on, to stage right (Mamah Diabaté and Mamadyba Camara). They appear on a spare black set littered with hanging tea lights, small floor lamps, and standing microphones, apparently arranged to mark the sites of four different graves addressed in Desdemona’s monologues (a detail I didn’t catch unassisted). To the back hangs a large white scrim, where the shadows of the performers rise, fall, and multiply as they tell their story through words and song, these projected spirits populating a ghostly world of memory, defiance, oppression, and – ultimately – the reclaimed freedom all Morrison’s protagonists seek.
The atmosphere of Desdemona is beautiful and mystical, but the overall theatrical result, to my mind, is mixed. While powerful voices are found not only for Desdemona, but also Barbary (the source of the ‘Willow Song’ in Shakespeare’s play, who is imagined here as a black woman named Sarah brought from Africa’s Barbary Coast), the performance is sometimes stilted and declamatory, conveying its message not through subtle dramatic representation but through diegetic, and didactic, narration. Women are misused, men damaged by circumstances. Those in power misread those below them, mistaking obedience for love, survival for cunning. While there are traces of Morrison’s deliciously emotive word pictures – at their first encounter, Othello appears to Desdemona as ‘a mass of a man, tree-tall, glittering’ in his uniform – there are also layers of righteous platitudes reminiscent of the pages of New Age self-help books – ‘Today I aspire to self-respect’, ‘I am not the meaning of a name I did not choose’. Benko’s low, somewhat mannered vocal delivery does not help, with the lines as she speaks them taking on the theatrical air of spoken-word poetry – a disproportionate number of ‘THEs’ and ‘As’ are pronounced emphatically with long vowel sounds (‘thēē time’ when ‘ā man’ does wrong) and normally silent ‘Ts’ (at least in Benko’s American accent) find new prominence in words like ‘si-TTing’.
These are small points, of course, but collectively they arrest the ear, remaking Desdemona’s confessional speeches into something altogether more performative, pre-planned, and affected. But perhaps this is no bad thing – we are after all talking about ghosts here, and who am I to say how they should sound? It’s possible as well that I am coming at this from the wrong angle entirely – Desdemona is at least as much about Traoré’s music as it is about Morrison’s words, with the Barbican situating the piece in its music programme and The Guardian sending along a music critic rather than a theatre one (despite running the review in the Stage section of their website). Traoré’s soft ballads are indeed magical, with her fluty voice giving way to airy cries and deep, guttural vibrato in equal measure, a sound that conjures up the ghost of Nina Simone alongside those of Shakespeare’s Barbary, Desdemona, and Othello (NB: the actress featured in this hyperlinked trailer is a different one than Benko). Throughout Desdemona, Traoré and Benko take turns progressing the story, moving it from song to narrative and back again as glowing colors spread across the backdrop and English translations of Traoré’s Bambara lyrics appear for us to read. Like Morrison, her words are saturated with potentially heavy-handed prayers for love, warnings against hate, celebrations of nature, and calls for peace. But like all lyrics, when they are woven into the music around them their simplicity takes on richer, more suggestive meaning, avoiding the awkwardness of words on a page and developing more naturally and atmospherically through the rhythms and sounds of which they are a part.
When the lights went up at the end of the two-hour performance, I was left with a feeling of thoughtful, albeit strained, reflection, with a lingering sense that the ghosts that had appeared before us had always remained modern-day imaginings of what we think liberated spirits – especially female ones – should be. Like Quija board conjurations, their stories had been ventriloquized through sympathetic, but nevertheless distant voices, their fearful haunting never allowed the full, unbridled, and unpredictable reign we might wish for them. Form, more than content, perhaps dictated this. Straddling theatrical performance and musical concert, Desdemona maintained a staid, rigid demeanor throughout. Only after seeing the performance did I realize that for me Desdemona’s reclaimed freedom looks like something altogether messier, rougher, and more fragile.
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To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.