Pamela Schermann’s Othello: Iago’s Capitalist Tragedy, Time Zone Theatre Company @ Waterloo East Theatre, London, 10 March 2015.
Cast: James Barnes (Othello), Trevor Murphy (Iago), Charlie Blackwood (Desdemona), Ella Duncan (Emilia), Denholm Spurr (Cassio).
Reviewed by Charlene Cruxent
One table. Three chairs. Five actors. White curtains.
That’s all it takes for Pamela Schermann to create a brilliant, fast-paced adaptation of Othello. The spectators discover a neutral backdrop consisting of a modern-day office while they serenely enter the auditorium of the theatre. Even before the performance begins, a living prop whets the curiosity of the viewer: a person is lying on the desk!
A man wearing black underwear and a white t-shirt is sleeping fitfully, writhing while the audience comment on his agitation. “I hate the moor” are the first words the actor utters, confirming what the viewers have been suspecting: the tormented man sleeping on the table is Iago (Trevor Murphy). He wakes up and tells his story, addressing the spectators as if revealing his plans to an accomplice.
Classical music punctuates his speech: as Iago calmly explains that Othello has chosen Cassio to be his right-hand man, flutes and violins create a sweet and flowing melody. When Iago adds that Othello deprived him of a promotion he considered himself worthy of, his extreme anger is conveyed through instrumental saturation (bassoon and piano). This musical fluctuation gives the impression that Iago is a Janus-like character: on the one hand, he appears as a kind and docile person, but on the other hand, he is hiding a spiteful and violent personality. Even if he claims that “[m]en should be what they seem” in front of his superior (3.3.129), Iago reveals right from the beginning: “I am not what I am” (1.1.64).
This “solo” provides a highly personal introspection. In a few words and notes, the aim of the soloist is made clear – he seeks revenge by destroying Othello’s life. Such clarity of purpose contrasts with Shakespeare’s display of Iago’s intentions: the performance is set in a claustrophobic capitalist environment where the main protagonist works hard in order to be promoted. The initial trigger of the plot (Iago’s lack of hierarchical and financial promotion), together with the image of the man sleeping on his desk, embody the straightforward purpose of Iago: money is what drives the aide’s ambitions, turning him into a modern-day business-oriented villain.
After Iago’s long soliloquy, four other characters come on stage holding champagne glasses to celebrate the end of the war. Two men and two women wearing suits exude joy as they make a toast and laugh. The scene is a complete contrast to the play’s opening. Iago’s position emphasises this all the more: the characters on stage act as though he is not present, physically and psychologically placing him in the margin.
He is an outsider but seems to have power over the other characters since he interrupts them to comment on their conversation. All of a sudden, the light turns yellow and the actors freeze, standing still like wax statues, while Iago describes the way in which he plans to take revenge. At that moment, the spectators clearly recognise Shakespeare’s Iago, a cunning and skilled strategist willing to do anything to achieve his goal.
Director Pamela Schermann highlights the role of Iago as a master manipulator using theatrical devices. He leads Othello (James Barnes) behind transparent white curtains that delimitate a room on the scene. They rush along these ephemeral walls, from one corner to the other, Iago showing Othello what he wants him to see. Schermann uses the stage area to present Iago as a puppeteer who controls his superior both physically and psychologically.
Despite the absence of a certain number of secondary characters (only Othello, Desdemona, Iago, Emilia and Cassio are present), the crucial scenes are performed, which enables the audience to observe Othello’s tragic jealousy increasing under the influence of Iago’s power. Clever devices replace scenes which are important but could not be shown. For instance, the first encounter between Othello and Desdemona’s father consists in a recorded dialogue, and the discussion between Cassio and Bianca takes place on Skype.
Pamela Schermann holds the spectators in suspense until the very end. She introduces her audience to a well-known, but at the same time “new”, play. A tragedy whose world – despite the apparent white and black dichotomy (white curtains VS black pieces of furniture, white dresses VS black suits, good VS evil characters)— is nothing but grey. This visual dichotomy corresponds to what a twenty-first century spectator would expect from a performance of Othello: it echoes the cultural and racial divisions which are at stake with the two protagonists of the tragedy.
In the 1800s, with the slave trade at its height, members of the audience considered Othello and Desdemona’s dyad as unnatural since a chaste white woman could not possibly choose a black partner; a man whose origins would imply having a quicksilver and compulsive husband. “Only by black actors playing Othello can we address some of the racist traditions and assumptions” claims actor Hugh Quarshie, who is encouraging producers to choose white comedians to perform Othello. In order to stop the racist stereotype of the quicksilver and compulsive black man, Iqbal Khan went a step further in 2015, staging a ground-breaking production with a black Iago.
Pamela Schermann’s aide is not black. However, presenting Iago as a quick-tempered and obsessive character (with the use of music to convey his fluctuating state of mind) may be a way to redefine the notion of “blackness”. The choleric behaviour tradition thus has ascribed to people from Africa is correlated to a white character, enabling Schermann to qualify the notions of “whiteness” and “blackness”, and at the same time, of “good” or “bad”.
The character of Othello itself has been performed in different ways, actors and producers highlighting either his excessive passions or his noble qualities. In Schermann’s production, Othello still elicits sympathy even after the egregious murder of his wife; he stays on stage, helpless, staring into space.
Iago’s incipient distress at the end of the performance qualifies his real intentions and so doing, also questions the vision of Iago as a loathsome arch-villain. In the final scene, surrounded by both Desdemona and Emilia’s corpses, he seems to realise all the harm he has done. His horrified facial expression reveals how he feels: he frowns in a desperate way, throws up his hands in horror, and widely opens his mouth as if to say something, but no words can be uttered.
In times like these, competition is high. The cost of living in London rises massively year on year, and we are pushed to our limits. The question I want to ask with this production is: How much can and should we sacrifice to achieve our career goals? What if in the end there is nothing left worth fighting for?
The director’s words summarize Iago’s state of mind at the end. After Cassio’s dismissal, Othello’s aide achieves his goal; he is promoted the Moor’s right-hand man. However, this does not seem enough for ambitious Iago who then wants to destroy his superior and take his place. But has he become richer or poorer? Is life less valuable than money and power? Iago’s apparent suffering gives the impression that the man has understood that one does not repay evil with evil, that money cannot buy happiness, and that nothing in human affairs can be seen only in black and white.
With this thought-provoking production, Pamela Schermann makes the audience ponder the role of money nowadays: money drives our world; we have put the latter at the centre of relationships in our capitalist society. While Shakespeare’s Iago may be driven by jealousy (twice in the play, he mentions that Othello had an affair with Emilia, his wife), Schermann’s Iago only acts because of the lure of profit that he regrets bitterly afterwards. White or black, Iago is just another Othello: influenced by a “green-eyed monster” (jealousy/money) which “like a poisonous mineral gnaw [their] inwards” (2.1.295), both men contrive to kill the woman they love, and then remain together with nothing but a drab desk to allay their pain.
 See for instance Samuel Taylor Coleridge who “rejected the idea of mutual love between a ‘beautiful Venetian girl’ and a ‘veritable negro’” < https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/coleridges-annotated-copy-of-shakespeare#sthash.6Ua6PdD5.dpuf >
 The Guardian, Web. 07.08.2017, < https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/jun/10/othello-actors-rsc-lucian-msamati-hugh-quarshie > It is worth noticing that twenty-first century French media bemoan the lack of black actors on stage, thus insinuating that racism is part of the French theatre industry. For further details: Le Monde.fr, Web. 07.02. 2017, <https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2015/10/16/pas-de-noirs-sur-scene-le-theatre-francais-est-il-raciste_4791000_3212.html >
 London Theatre 1, Web. 30.10.2015, < https://www.londontheatre1.com/news/103295/othello-transfers-to-waterloo-east-theatre/ >
 See Othello,1.3.386-7, 2.1.293-4.