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Monday, March 14, 2016

Othello (STC 2016)

This version is directed by the Brazil-born Ron Daniels and star Farran Khan as Othello and Jonno Roberts as Iago. The lesson is that Othello is the embodiment of the "other" in any society. He could be black in a white-dominated society or, in this case, a (converted) muslim in a Christian society, as the casting and directing suggest. 

The production is a letdown of sorts for me. After a few years of watching Shakespearean plays on stage and in movies, I may be having a burnout. Often a new production seems to be merely ticking off the boxes scene by scene. Actors are happy enough to get the lines out without looking exhausted. There is not a lot beyond the conventional interpretation. There is very little fun or distinctive mark. 

I understand the urge to cast Othello's "otherness" in whatever topical "other" look. Nevertheless I have always felt strongly that Othello should be black. Very black. Black in the way that Laurence Fishburne was in the movie or Laurence Olivier was --- yeah, yeah, I know Olivier did a Blackface there but the intent was not derogatory and my God what a brilliant decision to look thoroughly African! 

And Iago, oh Iago. It is so haaaaarrrrd to do him right. It is extremely rare to have a nuanced Iago who is halfway believable as a human being (even if a psychopathic one) rather than a caricature of villainy with evil maniacal laughs, as he was in this production, which went as far as lighting his face from below for effect. Might as well put a pair of horns on his forehead. 

I have thought about the possibility that this was a (relative) failure on Shakespeare's part, that maybe Iago failed to be human enough, but ... the older I get the more I am inclined to believe that he is indeed very human, but the elements he represents are too disturbing and terrifying for us to recognize within ourselves. He is not for polite company, so to speak, in a civilized society, but he does live among us and perhaps even in us. Whatever motivates him --- hatred, jealousy, fear of the other (?), or plain boredom --- I would love to see a realistic presentation of Iago. No evil laughs please. 

Vishal Bhardwaj's adaptations are some of my favorite re-interpretations of Shakespeare. I have begun to accept that perhaps the only way left for us to continue to own Shakespeare is to retell the stories, leaving behind most of the original text but keeping and even expanding on the spirit, like Bhardwaj has done. Rewriting it into a Hindi movie has clearly freed him and his actors to get to the heart of the matter with additional issues like feminism. Saif Ali Khan's Iago might as well be the most relatable --- yet even scarier --- interpretation that I have seen. 

And so far I have not seen a satisfactory interpretation of Desdemona. Perhaps it will take a female author's retelling to get there.


Aside: I came to a funny (ironic, not haha) realization. Hollywood depiction of The Black Man, as a representation of the American unconscious, is either the calmly confident and noble general Othello of the first half if he is good (eg, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman) or the hot-blooded Thug who murders Desdemona with his threatened masculinity (eg, the popular gangsters).

Another aside: It's also rather funny that Denzel Washington became very popular and well regarded playing the noble black man but only won the best lead actor award playing the dangerous black man (but never as Malcolm X). 

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