January 8, 1986: Shakespeare, Othello

Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican. Ben Kingsley as Othello, David Suchet as Iago, Niamh Cusak as Desdemona

The Desdemona was a sweetie who lacked the sophistication and strength of will to defy her father. Aside from that, this was very fine, very interesting casting. Kingsley’s Moor is in stark white Moorish dress, complete with turban (or whatever that headdress is called) early on. The Iago is a closet homosexual who loves Othello despite his professed hatred and cannot tolerate the idea of his marriage to a woman. Or so it seems, one gathers from this generally misogyn­istic portrait of the character. I don’t think he quite gelled altogether, but he was very good all the same.

The first act seemed off, but the performance really came alive after the interval and was increasingly effective and engrossing. Minimal sets, in a sense; very high, simple abstract transparent flats, one each left and right at mid-stage; they could be slid closed, leaving a slit in the center vaguely reminiscent of a woman’s vulva — yes, really. Or opened full; or outlined in a vivid yellow-orange neon tubing for night scenes. Two floor spaces also corresponding to the geometry of the idea, mirrored, one above the other, the downstage one with its access left of center, both frosted, so to speak, at the edge. The lower one was trapped, and we knew that eventually that would rise to become Desdemona’s bed, and doom.

In that first bedroom scene, the so-called brothel scene, the platform actually tilts up. In the night murder scene, the bed remains dimly lighted, Desdemona asleep; upstage right, a giant lion, a beast started and fearful, yet grimly menac­ing; at the left, up high, a double portal opens and Othello is there, demanding to know what has happened. Kingsley’s long braided hair and prominent, some­what flat nose makes him look leonine, and we take the general symbolic emph­asis to include the play, on the rousing of animal impulse that all too speedily and fatefully goes out of control.

Well performed all around, except for the disappointing Desdemona. Not a great production, but a very good one all the same. (I was taken to this production by the kindness of a member of the Society for Theatre Research, who had an extra ticket.)

A noteworthy fact: three plays in three nights involving the theme or idea of misogyny in one way or another. I sense this during the second act, watching Iago work, and wonder to what extent this is more than mere coincidence. Is there a sense of threat in the air these days that elicits some kind of instinctive response from playwrights and producers? One of the playwrights is, after all, female (Pam Gems, author of Camille).


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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