Othello at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Shakespeare’s Othello is, of course, a tragedy. The tragedy in the current modern dress production of the play at the Festival Theatre is that some fine actors suffer under the misdirection of director Nigel Shawn Williams.

Williams seemingly has never seen a dramatic moment he didn’t want to underline, then underline again. This has worked for him in past productions when used with restraint, notably in last season’s To Kill A Mockingbird, but here emphasis becomes excess. He has bookended the play proper with dramatic tableaux. Before the play begins we see Iago surrounded by black hooded figures dancing frenetically in place to loud hip-hop music as Othello and Desdemona are wed in the background. At play’s end, three female members of the Venetian armed forces drop their weapons and blubber like paid mourners at a Greek funeral. These interpolations are as screamingly obvious as they are unnecessary.

Had he let it go at that perhaps I could have forgiven him, but with the assistance of designer Denyse Karn (sets, lights, projections) he constantly comments on — and detracts from — the drama on stage. Karn’s set is a series of blank walls on which white on black drawings are projected. At first, simple architectural sketches outline doors quite effectively. As the play unfolds and Iago begins to elaborate his evil plans the walls are filled with abstract eruptions of clouds, blood oozing downwards, shattered glass, and cracks. It’s as if Williams doesn’t think Shakespeare is doing a good enough job and that only with a little help will the audience “get it.” Not only do these busy projections fail to illuminate the text, they distract from what the actor is doing downstage. They also have the cumulative effect of looking cheap, which I’m guessing they aren’t.

Another major disappointment is Gordon S. Miller, a fine actor who began his Stratford career as a wonderfully comic presence and has lately graduated to major dramatic roles. Alas, his Iago is unfocused and hampered by poor diction, which garbles words and ill serves the poetry. This is the sort of thing that a decent speech department at a drama school can correct and I am surprised the Festival’s staff of vocal coaches didn’t provide more assistance. Adding to his woes the lighting frequently leaves the bottom half of his face in shadow.

Over the years I have realized that if an actor is doing something amiss on a Stratford stage the director is at fault. Williams seems to have decided that Iago is evil incarnate, which is fair enough and the default reading of the role. Yet he allows Miller to occasionally lapse into comedic phrasing that undercuts the evil and gets laughs when a shudder would be more appropriate. It sometimes seems that instead of embracing the evil in Iago the actor is sending up Shakespeare’s character. What should be a tense journey as Iago ascends to greater and greater villainy until the bloody denouement becomes a bumpy road. This is not to say that Miller’s portrayal is without its strengths; he has some fine moments, which make the shortfall all the more unfortunate.

Amelia Sargisson was absolutely delightful as Eve in last season’s Paradise Lost. It may be that she is too inexperienced to tackle Desdemona, but she gets little assistance from Williams and Karn. This Desdemona is more like the bouncy thirteen-year-old Midwestern president of some pop star’s fan club than the elegant, well-born, intelligent, and self-possessed young woman Shakespeare describes. Her costumes are for the most part tacky and down-market, hardly befitting the “most exquisite lady” she is supposed to be.

Williams and Karn have also done the actress a major disservice by having her play her death scene in skin-tight, almost sheer panties. The Stratford Festival has made a laudable point of making sure its actresses are respected and protected in their costuming. An “intimacy coach” was enlisted for the recent production of Bakkhai and Donna Feore spoke eloquently about how she ensured that the strippers in Guys and Dolls were able to convey the smuttiness of their profession without being literally exposed. By contrast, the scantily clad Desdemona thrashing about on her deathbed is borderline pornographic.

Fortunately, and against considerable odds, Michael Blake is an exemplary Othello. He brings out the character’s natural intelligence as well as the martial derring-do that first attracted Desdemona to him and he speaks Shakespeare’s poetry with admirable clarity. Most importantly, he shows us clearly the many small steps the character takes in moving from calm assurance of his wife’s love to a jealousy that tears him apart. Had the other major characters achieved his level of performance this would have been an Othello for the ages, in spite of Williams’ over-emphatic direction.

Good work, too, comes from Laura Condlin as Emilia, Iago’s wife, who is here depicted as a sort of military attendant to Othello’s wife. Johnathan Sousa deftly conveys Cassio’s seemingly contradictory devotion to duty along with his weakness for alcohol and penchant for whoring. Michelle Giroux portrays the Duke as a Duchess with no damage done, except to the iambic pentameter. Juan Chioran, Michael Spencer-Davis, and Randy Hughson are reliably sturdy in smaller roles.

Williams deploys a relatively small cast (two fewer than the Festival’s last staging of the play), a third of them women, most of whom portray lineless soldiers. But male or female, Williams’ troops betray an almost amusing lack of familiarity with weaponry and military bearing.