Tag Archives: drama

National Theatre Live: Othello

England’s National Theatre has undertaken a project very, very dear to my heart: screening the very best NT productions, live, to cinemas worldwide! I’m very excited about this, and always feel butterflies in my stomach when I enter the Canadian movie theatre but hear the murmurs of the live audience at the National in London.

images-4Last week, I had the privilege of seeing National Theatre Live’s production of Othello, starring theatrical heavy-hitters Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, and directed by NT Artistic Director extraordinaire, Nicholas Hytner. The result was outstanding. Before the play, emcee Emma Freud interviewed Hytner about his dramatic vision, and he explained that Shakespeare’s Venice, in which the text begins, is not culturally important in itself as much as it’s a byword for bustling commercial centre. To Hytner, the play could just as easily begin in central London, which we see in the when the play begins with Iago and Roderigo shooting the shit on a set made to look like a generic English pub. Kinnear puts on a working-class accent, which helps us understand why Iago is so frustrated when Othello chooses the young, Cassio over himself for the post of second-in-command, even though Iago is an experienced officer and Cassio has “never set a squadron in the field.”

This play revolves around the theme of truth, the tales people tell, and what listeners trust as truth. Lester appears onstage as Othello, and instantly I trusted him as leader of the Venetian military. Why did he deserve my trust? It probably had a lot to do with the fact that Lester looks a lot like another “O”, Barack Obama! He’s handsome, but his graying temples only add to his sexual allure; we can see why Desdemona is so attracted to him, despite the age difference. Hytner doesn’t overdo the Obama parallels, but when Lester sits at the head of a boardroom table with reading classes on, I can see how Othello claims the respect of his fellow statesmen.

When Desdemona’s father storms into the war council after finding out that she’s eloped with the Moor, Othello welcomes Brabantio’s rebukes with an offer to tell the “round unvarnish’d tale” of his courtship with Desdemona. By saying “unvarnish’d”, Shakespeare calls up the black/white imagery that haunts the play, and shows that these colours extend beyond questions of race to questions of morality and truth. When he says that his tale will be “unvarnish’d”, Othello means that his story will be one of truth, dignity, and propriety. He wins over the council, and Brabantio storms off, warning the Moor that “She has deceived her father, and may thee,” the first of many foreshadowings of the couple’s ultimate doom.

Othello1_610_407shar_s_c1Soon after a plan is devised for the military to head to Cyprus, Iago reveals his plan to drive Othello mad with jealousy. Critics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge believe that Iago is a villain of “motiveless malignity” – that he doesn’t have a reason to wreak emotional havoc. I disagree. His first motive is being overlooked for promotion. He tells us of the second during one of his many soliloquies (speeches made alone onstage, directed to the audience):

I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

Iago has heard rumours that Othello is sleeping with his wife; he doesn’t know the rumours to be true, but decides to take his revenge without of seeking official confirmation. Tales run rampant in this play, and the fatal flaw of almost every character is that they refuse to communicate directly with their spouse. Iago plans to cure his jealousy by fighting fire with fire: just as the rumours of Othello sleeping with his wife drive Iago mad with jealousy, so Iago will drive a rift between Othello and Desdemona. Iago plans to “put the Moor / At least into a jealousy so strong / That judgment cannot cure.”

While the war with the Turks that brought the Venetians to Cyprus ends almost before it even begins, Iago intends to fill their time in Cyprus with other types of fighting. First, Iago gets the recovering alcoholic Cassio drunk, and Cassio brawls with another commander. Othello is upset and disappointed when he finds out, and Cassio sees this moment as his own personal tragedy. He cries: “O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” Like Othello, Cassio’s sense of self comes from a sense of duty, and the respect of those around him. Without his title, Cassio is left with the shame of his indiscretion and calls himself “bestial”, driven by his animal spirits and the opposite of his best, most civilized self.

othello23april2013twoOnce Cassio is out of the Moor’s favour, Iago steals Desdemona’s handkerchief, a token of love from the Moor, and tells Othello that Desdemona betrayed him by giving the token to Cassio. The beauty of this production is that Iago’s moment of greatest triumph happens in a washroom! A washroom of all places! But it’s perfect: for once, washrooms aren’t just for places for women to gossip, but for men, once again, to shoot the shit! Othello attempts to take Iago’s words as nothing but idle washroom gossip, saying, “It is not words that shake me thus.” In moments, his words fall as flat as he does; Iago has tormented the Moor so far that falls into a seizure on the bathroom floor. Kicking his prostrate commander with his boot, Iago tells the audience:

The Moor already changes with my poison:
Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood.
Burn like the mines of Sulphur.

In the past, I’ve heard critics make much of the “ocular proof” that Othello asks for to back up Iago’s claims of Desdemona’s infidelity. After seeing this production, I’m not convinced. Iago shows that Desdemona doesn’t even need to cheat on Othello: his words are all Iago needs to turn the Moor against his wife. Because everyone trusts him, calling him “Honest Iago”, Iago is able to spread his “poisonous” rumour and let it fester until Othello ultimately murders his wife.

Iago’s dark genius lies in his knowledge that Othello is just like him. As such, he knows that all Othello needs is to hear a rumour to make him unsure of his wife and unsettled in his rule as leader. If he can’t prevent his wife from cheating, if he can’t prevent his second in command from getting drunk, or sleeping in his wife, what can he do? Like Cassio who fears the “bestial” in himself, Othello tells us that without these cornerstones of his identity, “Chaos is come again.”

And chaos does, indeed, come to Cyprus. The council that had trusted Othello at the beginning of the play arrive on the scene to see Othello a fraction of the man he was: paranoid, inarticulate, and above all, violent to his wife. Hytner’s contemporary military backdrop at no point overshadows, but rather compliments this story, showing that although Shakespeare’s great tragedies tell tales on a national scale, the real tragedies are domestic.

 

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Why aren’t we teaching Two Gentlemen of Verona?

This weekend, I’ve been reading Two Gentlemen of Verona. It’s the second time I’ve read it, the first time at my leisure, and it makes me wonder: why isn’t this being taught in schools? Why have I always had to read it on my own?

Here are some reasons why this play is worth teaching:

–       Its scenes are short and the language is relatively simple.

–       It contains two strong female characters and a bunch of male ones, providing potential for group performance. This means that more students have a chance to perform, and nobody has to learn too many lines, much easier than the big tragedies.

–       It has two clowns! That makes for double the comedy!

–       It also has a “bit with a dog”, which we know from Shakespeare in Love, is always a winner for both young and old.

–       It has cross-dressing, which is always important to teach in terms of gender/sexuality dynamics and how women weren’t allowed onstage in Shakespeare’s time

–       It has countless elements from two well-known and often-taught tragedies: Othello (jealousy, scheming to break up one’s best friend’s relationship) and Romeo and Juliet (banishment, sneaking away to be with one’s lover), yet it’s a comedy.

–       Yes, yes, I know – the comedy is a very troubling one, on account of the whole “Valentine loves Silvia, but so does Proteus, who said he loved Julia, but he actually tries to rape Silvia in the forest” thing. Oh, and the whole “Valentine forgives Proteus, and offers (?!?) him Silvia to re-solidify their bonds of friendship” thing. Yeah, that’s misogynist; maybe they should change the title to “Two Ungentlemanly Men of Verona? It doesn’t have the same ring to it. Obviously, teachers do not want to condone rape, the rape myth, or any sort of philosophy other than “only yes means yes.” But we also wouldn’t want the rampant racism of Othello and the teen-runaway-marriage of Romeo and Juliet, and we still teach those. I think it’s totally worthwhile to give the students that shock factor, and then discuss why that’s not acceptable today. Show them how Shakespeare starts the play in such a way that we can totally relate to his writings of youthful infatuation and the wretchedness of long-distance relationships, but how, ultimately, things were different in his time. No matter how durable his writing is, and I know that’s the biggest reason we appreciate his works today, it’s still vital to recognize that he was a product of his time, and wrote for audiences of his time. And unfortunately, the audiences of his time didn’t offer wiggle room when practicing the “bros before hoes” rule.

Okay, so I know that these opinions may be controversial. But perhaps I want it to be that way, in the hopes of stirring up some conversation! What do you think: should this play be taught in schools?

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Trauma gravitates towards trauma

This post was originally published in my Secret Diary of PhD Candidate column for The Shakespeare Standard.

My 2012 recreational reading/listening list looks a bit like this:

–       Jane Austen’s Persuasion (audio book read by a wonderful librivox.org volunteer)

–       The Hunger Games (the entire series, twice; first in print and then over audio book)

–       Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms (also an audio book, extra points because Mad Men’s John Slattery reads it)

–       The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Twelfth Night Soundtrack

When I look at the list, I feel the satisfaction of having enjoyed good books and music – a pretty fair way to spend the time that I was recovering from some family trauma of my own.

Today, after a trip to see a previously-recorded version of the Stratford Festival’s 2011 production[1] of Twelfth Night, I realized that now, more than ever before, I had become addicted to trauma narratives. No longer was Twelfth Night the same old story of “girl-dressed-as-boy meets boy, boy loves other girl, but other girl is obsessed with girl-dressed-as-boy.”

Suzy Jane Hunt as Viola (disguised as Cesario) in Stratford's Twelfth Night. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I mean, think about it this way: Viola of Messaline was on one of those Costa cruise ships with her twin brother, her counterpart, when it hits a storm and the boat capsizes. They each survive, but she lives in grief thinking that Sebastian has been lost to the waves. Viola lands in Illyria, the country against which her country is at war. How convenient – landing in the country of your enemy, a woman, escorted only a moment longer by the captain, who has survived (how are we not surprised?). She begs him to hide her identity so she can live under the protection, and enjoy some of the privileges, of a great house. Smart girl.

But Viola doesn’t pick just anyone to live with – at first she wants to serve Lady Olivia. We can tell by the similarity of names that there will be some similarity of character. Here is what Viola learns about Lady Olivia:

A virtuous maid, the daughter of a count
That died some twelvemonth since, then leaving her
In the protection of his son, her brother,
Who shortly also died: for whose dear love,
They say, she hath abjured the company
And sight of men.

Viola gravitates towards the person who can empathize with her grief – they both carry the burden of fresh wounds, having lost their brothers earlier in the year. Olivia’s father has also recently died and Viola, whose voice is high enough to pass for a eunuch, had experienced the same grief when only a couple of years before, her father had “died that day when Viola from her birth / Had number’d thirteen years.” Trauma on one’s birthday – I’ve been there and don’t recommend it. Before she decides to work as a boy for Orsino, Viola shows how that she had rather be a lady-in-waiting for a woman who “like a cloistress, … will veiled walk / And water once a day her chamber round / With eye-offending brine” – tears.

I could go on. Of course Maria thinks Olivia will order to “hang the fool” – he has abandoned her in her time of grief. Why is this? In this pansexual play, is he, too, grieving over the untimely loss of Olivia’s brother? The Stratford production offers some interesting sexual tension between Olivia and Feste – hath she abjured the sight of this man? She lets Malvolio stick around, and doesn’t even wholeheartedly cast off Sir Andrew. Interesting. Feste proves Olivia the fool by catechizing her into admitting that one mustn’t grieve for those living in luxury in heaven above. Only then can her heart begin to open for a return of our usual programming, throwing herself at the girl Viola, dressed as a boy, Cesario.

Percy Shelley wrote: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” and I’d like to think that this production offers that same message of hope.


[1] Hilarious at the Festival itself, the filmed broadcast added dimension to my understanding of Des McAnuff’s production because I got to see the characters’ facial expressions close-up. It was excellent, but the machines playing it kept cutting out. On the bright side we got passes, so I’m going to try to see it in full on the 21st, when it’s playing at 7 pm for an encore presentation.

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