Stratford Festival review: modern take on Othello deepens Shakespeares tragedy

Nigel Shawn Williams's powerful production shifts the emphasis from jealousy to societal racism and misogyny


OTHELLO by William Shakespeare (Stratford Festival). At the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Runs in rep to October 27. $28.75-$150.29. 1-800-567-1600, stratfordfestival.ca. See listing. Rating: NNNN


Othello is a problematic play. The Black general Othello (Michael Blake) is driven by his envious underling Iago (Gordon S. Miller) to a rage of jealousy against his wife, Desdemona (Amelia Sargisson).

It’s simple – possibly too simple. The narrative feels forced, hurtling along at a precipitous pace. There’s no subplot to give the work some supplementary themes and no friendly fool – or anything else – to give the piece just a whiff of comic relief. You’re just watching a man’s inexorable downfall while wishing he would talk to his wife for just one minute.

Director Nigel Shawn Williams gives the play some much-needed texture by giving it a contemporary setting and emphasizing the racism that fuels Iago’s resentment and the misogyny that helps bring Othello down.

These themes are there dimly in the text, but Williams makes them vivid via some smart strategies. He creates a wordless scene to begin the play in which Othello is getting married to the fair Desdemona while, accompanied by an edgy electronic soundtrack, soldiers express their displeasure in threatening movement. It’s clear from the start that Othello has crossed a line.

The scene works to make you more aware of the raging racism expressed in the play, not only by Desdemona’s father, who was fine with Othello as long as he was a charming dinner guest and not his son-in-law. Others also betray their casual racism, including even an admirer of Othello, who refers to him as “more fair than Black.” After that first scene, a line like that has an added impact.

In Williams’s conception, Emilia (Laura Condlin), Iago’s wife, is not Desdemona’s handmaiden but rather a soldier assigned to protect her. Emilia is joined in the armed forces by other women who stand stalwart while the male characters make infuriating sexist remarks. Williams definitely has sexual harassment in the military on his mind. And in this age of #MeToo, Emilia – even though she carries her own weapon – exhibits the signs of an abused wife as she acquiesces to Iago’s dictates.

As Iago keeps chipping away at Othello’s self-esteem and plotting ways to implicate Othello-favoured officer Cassio (Johnathan Sousa) in an affair with Desdemona, it’s clear that it’s Othello’s own misogyny that leads him to believe Iago – without bothering to check in with his wife. A final sequence featuring the women soldiers acts as a frame with the first to reflect the production’s anti-sexist bent.

Denyse Karn’s set adds to the tumultuous atmosphere, especially via her video projections. Usually I think of these as a bit of a cheat. Shakespeare’s text and a chair – okay, with a few props, too – should usually do the trick. But here, Karn’s black-and-white images – sometimes they look like smoke, sometimes water, sometimes dripping blood – reflect the roiling emotions that are getting out of control.

Blake has the charisma the title role requires, ably demonstrating how he’s risen through the army ranks, though the performance could use some more variation, especially as Othello begins to lose his grip – sometimes rage can have its silent moments. Sargisson gives Desdemona dignity and, more important, unusual heft. After seeing her, you will never be tempted to think of Desdemona as a passive victim.

But it’s Miller who anchors the production. His Iago is not the wiry, scary, silent type, but a flip and glib menace, who appears to be ragging Othello for pure sport. On opening night, he flew through the lengthy exposition in the opening act a bit too quickly, but soon settled into a great performance as a happy-go-lucky shit disturber, more sly than vicious, who should by no means be underestimated. He’s almost likeable – and that’s a real feat. 

@susangcole

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