Othello, translated and directed by Jack Nieborg, Shakespeare Theater Diever, The Netherlands, 7 September 2013.
Reviewed by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)
Diever is a small village in the North of the Netherlands that has achieved national fame for staging a Shakespeare play every year since the second world war. Its cast and crew consist of amateurs, and its outdoor productions draw large crowds every summer. In stark contrast to the usually rather bare stages of professional Dutch theatres, the Diever crew usually lavish much attention on the stage design and the costumes. Last year’s Othello was no exception. In this play set in Venice and on Cyprus, sand, rather than water, was the predominant element of the stage design. Sand covered the stage floor; at the back of the stage, a city wall was built up out of sand bags, which the lighting transformed into the semblance of solid stones. We found ourselves in the world of Beau Geste: many of the soldiers wore the sand-coloured uniforms and kepis reminiscent of the French Foreign Legion. Yet, the costuming did not reflect the same period throughout: Lodovico and some of the other Venetian dignitaries were early modern period, while some of the soldiers wore modern helmets and battle dress. White, or off-white, were dominant colours. Othello himself at first wore a light uniform coat; but as his jealousy grew, we caught more and more glimpses of the inside lining of the coat, which was bright green. When preparing to strangle Desdemona with his belt, he took off his coat altogether, so that the green lining was clearly visible, as well as more of the dark skin of his torso.
In the production’s insistent colour scheme, (off-) white was not just pitted against green, but also against black. This was clear from the start, as the centre part of the sandy-coloured city wall, a crenelated tower, was considerably darker—obviously symbolising Othello’s function as the paradoxical black bulwark on which the survival of white civilisation depended. There were doors and windows in the tower on various levels, which were occasionally opened. Gradually, however, the side of the bulwark facing the audience was dismantled: from time to time, a group of funeral attendants in modern dress marched in, to the sound of sad music, and solemnly bore away another part of the wall, as if it were a coffin: another part of Othello was carried to the grave. As a consequence, we saw more and more of the interior of the watchtower, which was transformed into a variety of colours by the lighting, to match the atmosphere of the scene: red for the willow song, and, obviously, green for jealousy. Because of this transformation, the tower could also serve several functions: from Brabantio’s carefully closed up mansion in Venice, it became the senate building, with the senators standing in niches, and the less fortified inner side of the ramparts of Cyprus; and ultimately, when the entire inner wall had been completely removed, it became Othello and Desdemona’s bedroom.
Although the visuals attracted much attention, that is not to say that the acting was disappointing; far from it. The undoubted star of the evening was Iago. Whenever the other characters left him alone on stage, he smiled full of pride over the success of his ruses. He often moved into the auditorium on a runway specially made for this purpose, to share his thoughts in soliloquy with the audience, always making sure to enlist them as his co-conspirators. Thanks to clever lighting, he often cast a heavy shadow on the ramparts behind him. For all his charm, he was also a misogynistic psychopath. Emilia obviously spoke from her own experience when she complained about men. Her divided loyalties gave her character great depth. She tried to use the handkerchief to win back Iago’s affection, but he was mercilessly ungrateful to her once he had gained his prize.
Cassio seemed far too old for Desdemona, which made Iago’s insinuations ludicrous. Cassio did use his charm on her, but always remained a gentleman. Bianca, by contrast, he treated very badly. When he tried to avoid being seen with her by Othello, he first told her he did not wish to be seen with a whore. He immediately corrected this slip of the tongue, but when she agreed to walk some way together with him, he quite comically carried her off-stage, away from Othello.
Othello was a very young, athletic man with a slight Caribbean accent. His tormenting self-doubt, consequently, could not be attributed to his sense of being too old for Desdemona, but must be due to his colour. His suicide was staged in an unusual way: instead of using a sword, he hanged himself. When his guards were not paying attention, he escaped to the upper story of the tower, and made a noose out of a rope: the moment he was supposed to jump, the light was switched off. His last words were the ’base Iudean’ speech; his moving suicide monologue beginning ‘In Aleppo once’ was cut. Nevertheless the method of his suicide, self-strangulation, resembled his murder of Desdemona, suggesting that he was punishing himself rather than just escaping from the consequences of his crime. After their deaths, Othello and all his victims were led off by the funeral attendants, as if their spirits stood up and walked away, leaving an invisible body behind. The show was finished off with a dance—just like Thomas Platter witnessed after a production of Julius Caesar in 1599.
Jack Nieborg’s translation was highly modern and idiomatic, which often added a note of comic relief to the prevailing gloom. Iago, in particular, was sometimes made to sound like a modern politician, then again like a manager: ‘Success is a choice!’ All in all, the Diever team once again managed to stage Shakespeare as he himself might have liked it: addressing a broad audience without dispensing with depth.