[22 June 2008]
Shakespeare’s Othello is one of the heaviest dramatic tragedies to ever grace a stage. Yet, director Wilson Milam’s production from the Bard’s original stomping grounds of the Globe Theatre relies on Shakespeare’s penchant for comedy to break up the otherwise weighty atmosphere.
Recorded for television on 4 May 2007 at the live production from The Globe, this particular production of Othello translates well to its DVD format with crisp, warm color and camera angles that capture stage action and reaction along with appropriately timed close-ups.
While Eamonn Walker’s portrayal of Othello is mesmerizing, Tim McInnerny’s Iago is the maliciously merry ringleader of the production’s antics. Innerny’s Iago impresses the point that the villain of the piece is as equally important to the play as its title character, a sharp contrast to Walker’s Othello. Both actors take command of the stage when they’re on it, complimenting one another’s characterization greatly.
Innerny (best known for his role in television’s Black Adder) seems to relish Iago’s interaction with the audience, casting sneering glances and smirking at those in attendance as he lets them in on his dastardly plots and schemes. He makes Shakespeare’s soulless opportunist loathsomely likeable, particularly in his scenes manipulating the foolish Roderigo (Sam Crane, who plays the role with a foppish flair). When Iago tells Roderigo to “put money in thy purse”, his speech manages to combine comedy with a malicious underlying intent. Similarly, he’s a hoot when mocking Cassio (Nick Barber)‘s vaguely narcissistic mannerisms. Innerny’s Iago revels in his remorselessness, making it clear to the audience that he sees nothing wrong with affecting the lives of others to twist the situation to his advantage.
On the flipside, Eamonn Walker delivers no less of an outstanding performance as Othello. The Globe Theatre production of Othello isn’t the first time Walker has stepped into the role, having played a modernized version of the character in an ITV1 film.
Walker’s Othello is both regal and physically imposing. The actor’s raspy voice lends itself to the Moor’s initially calm and eloquent manner, holding his ground with dignity, genuine emotion, and grace in the face of Brabantio (John Stahl)‘s rage. Although it’s a small part, Stahl’s characterization of Desdemona’s father is memorable. Transforming the character from its typical interpretation as a sad, old man into an outraged—if not double-standard bearing racist—father at odds with his daughter.
Brabantio, and others, seem to lead the charge in the process of dehumanizing Othello—finding it hard to believe him capable of kindness. Walker’s interaction as Othello with Zoë Tapper’s stellar portrayal of a strong, yet sweet natured Desdemona as a pair of blissful newlyweds proves this otherwise, the actors showcasing believable tenderness in their scenes together.
As the events of the play transpire, leading him to believe that he has been betrayed by his wife, Desdemona and friend/colleague, Cassio; Othello is guided further into madness by the scheming Iago. Walker’s metamorphosis is masterful, with the title character growing more menacing with each passing minute. Even in his profound grief upon murdering Desdemona, his sorrow is terrifying. Walker makes even this complete 180 degree turn plausible with his slow burn, fleshing out the downward spiral of a good man who is duped into destroying his own life by the jealous Iago to profit from his misfortune.
Milam’s interpretation of Othello, although more than relevant to the unspoken racial tensions of the present day, manages to pull off an authentic replication of 16th century Venice and Cypress with costuming that while not terribly elaborate, is no less beautiful and true to the period. His direction makes use of the massive pillars of the Globe theatre’s stage set up to punctuate the dialogue. A sparse catalogue of props—a table, two benches, one stool, and one bed—adequately keeps the focus on the top notch acting of the cast. An effort of pure passion by the director and cast, during the readings, various quartos and folios were used to create this interpretation seen here. Each cast member enjoyed different readings and rallied to get theirs incorporated into the final interpretation seen here.
While the question of race in Othello—particularly this version—is a major focus, the actors’ performances convey a fear not just of ethnic difference, but also a fear of replacement. Although race and racism is the motivating force behind the actions in the play, each of the characters who act out do so of a fear of replacement not only within the bedroom, but also in societal position and security.
In one of the most striking moments of the play, Lorraine Burroughs delivers as evidence Aemelia’s signature speech on women driven to infidelity by their husbands with a fiery earnestness that, while written hundreds of years ago, wouldn’t be out of place on Sex and the City. Burroughs as Iago’s wife Aemelia gives a memorable take on the character, imbuing her with a sense of weary regret, giving the impression of a good woman whose mores are slightly, and self-justifiably warped by her husband.
Interspersed between the play’s themes of racial prejudice, jealousy, and unjustified cruelty, Milam mines Shakespeare’s text and subtext for comedic gems—brilliantly pulled off thanks to an adept ensemble cast.
In place of the standard swashbuckling heroics that usually abound in Shakespearean stage fights, Milam’s direction plays these brawls for comedy. Drunken fisticuffs ensue in the first half of the play and the pivotal sword fight between Cassio and Roderigo is played for laughs.
The role of the clown in Othello is typically one of the most dry in all of Shakespeare’s repertoire. Thankfully, the actor portraying the clown, Paul Lloyd was allowed to run with a sarcastic sort of humor in the role, adding much to the play’s atmosphere and successfully lightening the mood from time to time. He also choreographed and leads the cast jig at the end of the performance, in keeping with the long-standing tradition that has been carried over since the Elizabethan age
While short on extras (a brief, yet informative interview with director Wilson Milam), the performance alone, with its full five acts spread between two discs, more than makes up for it.