OTHELLO by William Shakespeare (Stratford). At the Avon Theatre, Stratford. Runs in rep to October 19. $49-$120, stu/srs $20-$55. 1-800-567-1600. Rating: NNNN
If there’s a single impression you take away from director Chris Abraham’s production of Othello, it’s the speed of the tragedy.
Shakespeare’s text supports that vision. The action begins with the secret elopement of Othello (Dion Johnstone) and Desdemona (Bethany Jillard), her father’s sulfurous anger, Othello’s immediate posting from Venice to Cypress and then the skilfully woven, seemingly impromptu net that the duplicitous Iago (Graham Abbey), Othello’s ensign, weaves to entrap the Moor.
But these rapid developments don’t detract from the power of the storytelling. Abraham’s fine team of actors who give emotional moments their appropriate weight and provide insights into their characters.
Johnstone properly sets out as a dignified figure: Othello must command respect in his first appearance, not only with his words but also his bearing. Only later does his quick anger appear, as does his passion for Desdemona that provides the tripping point for his descent into jealous madness. Throughout the second act, he’s a dangerous figure, though there’s a surprising tenderness and intimacy in the murder he commits in the last act.
Jillard’s innocent Desdemona is winning from the start, open and chattering, a childlike figure who grows in dignity as she approaches her end.
Abbey’s Iago is almost always on edge in private, cold and twitchy when he reveals his thoughts and plans to us, though I’d like to see at least a touch of glee in his plotting.
Some of Iago’s best scenes are with his wife, Emilia (the excellent Deborah Hay) Abbey and Hay make these episodes some of the most tension-filled in the show. But equally impressive is the end of the first act, a kind of infernal marriage ceremony in which the wily Iago gives his pledge to help Othello wreak his vengeance.
There’s also good work by Mike Shara as Iago’s gull, Roderigo Brad Hodder as an open Cassio, the object of Othello’s jealousy and Shauna Black as a passionate Bianca, Cassio’s actual lover.
Abraham plants the seeds of the central characters’ downfall with care, allowing the audience to see the cracks widen as the action progresses.
You couldn’t ask for a more handsome production, designed by Julie Fox and lit by Michael Walton, with an ominous sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne. The set is red and black, emblematic of anger and blood as well as Othello’s “otherness” as a black man in this culture.
At stage centre at the start of the play, on an irregularly shaped rotating platform, we see the handkerchief with strawberry stitching that provides Othello with the “ocular proof” of his wife’s infidelity.
As the walls change shape from scene to scene, the platform shifts positions to provide some intentionally precipitous levels on which the characters balance. The only touch of white is Othello and Desdemona’s bed, ultimately the setting for their deaths.