Othello, translated by Norman Chaurette, directed by Léonie Simaga, Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, Comédie-Française, Paris, 25 April 2014, middle stalls.
Review by Stéphanie Mercier
If Leontes has his reason stolen by interior fiends, the outward malignancy of this Iago’s (Nâzim Boudjenah) demonic machinations almost steals the show here – but not quite. What prevents the play being dominated by a would-be Machiavellian, consistently obnoxious character is Shakespeare’s, and Léonie Simaga’s, staging of sight and sound throughout. This surpasses Manichean considerations to highlight the tensions inherent to control and coercion, religion and Realpolitik or, and perhaps most importantly, creates a caveat against the power of narration and the potential indoctrination that warped collective memory can provoke.
When the medieval hairdressed Iago (the short-cropped pudding bowl cut appropriately points to both his purportedly loyal soldier-like and stock evil qualities), apparently furious for having been passed over for promotion, begins to manipulate Roderigo (Laurent Natrella), the manoeuvre is made complete by a clinging male hug – physical contact that becomes a cornerstone element of the production. Here, it highlights bonding/bondage along with Iago’s immediate power over his gullible acolyte, is a physical reaction against a gut fear of miscegenation and effectively translates the ‘othering’ by which Iago (‘Were I the Moor I would not be Iago’ (1.1.57)) and progressively most of the male characters – including the dreadlocked Othello (Bakary Sangaré) whose carefully pronounced, although non-native, French diction perfectly transcribes the required effort towards host country compliance – will come to define themselves in the play. Fittingly, the locked-in hugging pose is repeated throughout. Othello and Desdemona (Elsa Lepoivre) first join in a passionate embrace (1.3) in a positive counterpoint to the earlier negativity but, as the plot thickens and after the drunken brawl orchestrated by Iago to dishonour Cassio (Jérôme Pouly), the couple next entwine when Desdemona, upon Iago’s suggestion, obtains his reinstatement (3.3). Forebodingly, Emilia (Céline Samie) is also forcibly pushed to the ground and straddled by her husband in comparable, yet only momentary sexual, gratification for having delivered the ‘handkerchief’ in the very same scene. The fleeting ‘proof’ of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness is then flaunted, first metaphorically, ‘She did deceive her father, marrying you’ (3.3. 210), and then literally, in front of Othello who thus begins to conform to the stereotypes that he has worked so hard to resist as an ex-slave and first-generation immigrant (inherent weaknesses that Iago will gleefully play upon). Henceforth he has no further choice but to sit with his back to the audience in resigned compliance with Iago’s sweeping generalities – this to a point at which the ostensibly loyal servant can later satisfy his own desires and take Desdemona in his arms to dress, and fondle, her in an ocular point about hideous sexual, and social, triumph.
Audible narrative is of utmost importance to the whole production. Iago and Roderigo’s violent ravings arouse Brabanzio’s fatherly fears of the apparent strangeness that the non-conformity of mixed marriage, ‘O treason of the blood!’ (1.1.170), implies. Othello’s initial soothing, deep-voiced wisdom, a stark contrast to the previous polyphonic chaos, is indeed strange in that it is he, the outsider, a Turk converted to Christianity, who finds the right words to ‘out-tongue … complaints’ (1.2.19). Next, the Moor’s tale, exuding grace, confidence and contained energy, which Sangaré makes worthy of the finest tradition of African orality (1.3.130-65), totally silences his superiors. The calm acquiescence is short-lived however as, in Cyprus, Iago imposes himself as Othello and Desdemona’s point of reference in their newfound expatriate community and gives full rein to his underdeveloped version of humanity. He noisily pretends to defecate into his soldier’s helmet to represent giving birth (2.1), stares out into the audience as he loudly soliloquises his scheming, and vociferously mimics Othello’s accented pronunciation, before imitating an ape, on all fours, in a raucous, clichéd representation of how he imagines his duped superior (4.1). The unfathomable depth of his totalitarian hatred is made clear by a triumphant victory lap around the stage before exiting, comparable to the plunge into senseless violence that terminates the play. Yet Iago is not Machiavelli, according to whom continuing power implies competent negotiation, the medio stat virtus of James I’s own politics and in whose reign the play was first performed. Destined to endure similar tortures to those he has inflicted, Iago is finally dragged on stage chained in an iron dog collar to emphasise his degradation. In contrast, Cassio (a Florentine, as Machiavelli before him) is left standing – albeit here supported by a pair of symbolic crutches to represent his undoubtedly hurt pride at the plot’s close. The capacity to compromise rather than antagonise is the closing message of this production, in which Simaga manages to bring out all that is ‘great of heart’ (5.2.371) in Shakespeare’s tex
Read a full-length version of this review in Cahiers Élisabéthains 86 (spring 2014).
Stéphanie Mercier is an agrégée French and English bi-national who teaches at the Université de Poitiers. She is currently working on a thesis on the Commodification of the Body in Shakespeare’s Theatre. She reviews regularly for L’Oeil du Spectateur, the Cahiers Shakespeare en Devenir supplement on the Poitiers University website (https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr/). Contact details: firstname.lastname@example.org.