BWW Review: The Stratford Festival's OTHELLO Offers Strong Performances and a Tragic Social Commentary
The 67th season at the Stratford Festival is officially underway, and off to an exciting start after Monday's opening night performance of OTHELLO. Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams and starring Michael Blake in the titular role, this production is thought provoking and electrifying from start to finish.
OTHELLO is the story of a successful Venetian General who has spent his life overcoming intolerance and racism, but is brought to the point of a mad and jealous rage by his cunning and dare I say, psychopathic ensign. Othello's decent into the character of a jealous and murderous husband is heartbreakingly portrayed by Mr. Blake.
I like to tell people that the first half of OTHELLO is one of my favourite Shakespearean plays. This is because in the second half, I struggle greatly with the apparent implication that had Desdemona actually cheated on her husband; her tragic fate would somehow be justified. Iago's ability to use the prejudices within a society to his advantage and to masterfully manipulate the weaknesses and insecurities within human beings, is no doubt the cause of the unraveling of a character like Othello-and this production explores this to great effect-but I still struggle with the way the text implies that the true horror is not that Othello murdered his wife, but that he did so under false pretences. The fact that I enjoyed this entire production as much as I did, despite the aforementioned murder of Desdemona, is evidence of the thought, care, and creativity the director and actors give to this piece.
This is a modern OTHELLO, taking place in a world where it is far too common for folks to quickly latch on to lies they are fed, and then fall victim to confirmation bias. Williams highlights this in his director's notes. He also speaks to the folly in our society where men would rather kill than be ridiculed, clearly demonstrating that he shares my aforementioned discomfort. There is much discomfort to go around with this play. Its events are charged by racism and misogyny and perhaps the reason it is so uncomfortable for the audience is because everything that happens in this play happens every single day in the world we live in. This is also, perhaps, the reason why this play is so important.
The character of Othello is deeply complex, with much information about him to be interpreted. For example, there is reference early on in the play, to a potential brain injury he sustained as a youth. Later in the play, he has a seizure-something, it is established, that has happened to him before. This scene has been performed in different ways, sometimes with it not being clear that the character is having a seizure. Williams and Blake make a point to make this very clear in this production, which is why I feel it is relevant to consider the possibility that Othello had previously sustained some significant damage to his brain. The most common cause of epileptic seizures is damage to the temporal lobe. Such damage can also lead to changes in personality-particularly with regards to interpersonal interactions and self-image. It can also cause poor impulse control. It seems very plausible that Iago (a captivating Gordon S. Miller) took advantage of this potential vulnerability in Othello, just as he took advantage of the latter's pre-existing insecurities created by a racist society, and just as he took advantage of Michael Cassio's vulnerability to alcoholism. Both Michael Blake and Jonathan Sousa (Cassio) are excellent at creating sympathetic characters that fall victim to Iago's Machiavellian manipulations.
The entire cast is excellent. Amelia Sargisson plays Desdemona with a rare blend of strength and innocence. Her forgiveness of Othello, even when not warranted, is an example of the best we as humans are capable of, just as Othello's descent into rage is an example of the worst.
The always excellent Laura Condlln plays the fascinating character of Emilia-the wife of Iago, and in this production, the personal soldier to Desdemona (a nice choice by Williams to change her position from attendant to soldier, thus adding variety to the roles women have within the production). Despite being one of the more self aware characters in the play, Emilia is an unwitting accessory to her husband's villainous plans, making her discovery of what he has done all the more tragic.
It is early to know for sure, but Miller's Iago may be the most memorable character of this season. We first see him with a seething anger about being passed up for the position of lieutenant-this, allegedly being what sets him on a path of destruction-but as the play progresses and he becomes braver and cockier as he revels in his own villainy, one has to wonder if this dark side had just been waiting for an excuse to rear its ugly head. Miller is somehow simultaneously charming and creepy throughout most of the play. He is most terrifying at the end when he does not say a word and just stares blankly past those around them, unwilling to even give them closure in the form of an explanation. I found myself leaning in during Iago's soliloquies, completely enraptured by every word out of his mouth.
The simple, yet clever design by Denyse Karn and the lighting design by Kaileigh Krystztofiak are very effective. Projections of building facades appear as needed as etchings on a backdrop. At other times, the projections are that of a moving liquid (perhaps poison) and smoke behind Iago as he shares with us his cunning and calculated plans. Iago is not what he seems, so the 'smoke and mirrors' imagery in the projections behind him seems very fitting.
Although the content is at times hard to watch, the performances were impossible to keep my eyes off of. The complexity of a racist, sexist, and intolerant society, and the indirect damage that does to the psyche of its citizens, the layered aspects of each character that help to explain how and why they can be capable of terrible things, and the nothing-short-of-Machiavellian lies told by Iago, lead the characters into a seemingly unavoidable collision course with tragedy. The real tragedy though, is that this is all actually so incredibly avoidable. A lesson we sometimes can only learn by seeing the worst of us reflected back.
OTHELLO is currently playing in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 27th.
Photo Credit: Chris Young