Ahh, Othello, one of my favorite characters created by the Bard! He’s right up there with Hamlet. He’s the ultimate outsider-insider: an African (Moor; former Muslim who converted to Christianity) in world of whites (Venice, Italy) who commands respect for his military victories. Then he marries a white girl (the noblewoman Desdemona) and all hell breaks loose. Well, it’s not quite that simple…
He is a contradictory man- a great speaker who is also capable of great violence. Othello is a military man who sees things in black and white (this has a double meaning), unlike Iago, who deals in shades of gray. Being such, he sees killing Desdemona as an act of justice. My favorite professor said that though he was a skilled warrior, Othello probably had very little experience with love. He relies too much on Iago’s judgment, because he knows more about the ways of white women.
The current production at the Folger is pretty good, with creative and gorgeous sets, costumes, and music. The action, including swordplay, was exciting. For the isle of Cyprus, Middle Eastern clothes and belly dancing is probably not accurate though. I went to a preview show last Sunday. The matinee audience was mainly elderly and college-aged, aside for a few who were around my age.
There were a couple of scenes where I got lost in the drama- good to have! Back in high school and college, I saw Othello (played by Owiso Odera) as more heroic/larger than life; this play cut him a bit down to size. He wasn’t such a big presence; Iago (Ian Merrill Peakes, who was in Henry VIII last year) was the star and better actor. Merril Peakes spoke the language with ease and conviction. Othello, who’s slight accent seemed to drift in and out, spoke the lines, but was not quite there when it came to feeling the words. Othello’s first crucial scene (in front of the Duke of Venice and other important nobles) was not as strong as I’d have liked. But he did have good chemistry with Iago in their one-on-one scenes.
Emilia (Karen Peakes; also wife of Ian Merrill Peakes) did a great job; her character has some great lines. Emilia is cynical, experienced, and wise- a contrast to the naive Desdemona. The actress who played Desdemona got better throughout the play, but was too much of a lightweight. She was too bubbly in her depiction, which created a tone that I didn’t think was fitting for a very young woman who had recently been disowned by her father. Rodrigo (Luis Butelli; also in Henry VIII) was the spurned suitor who followed Desdemona to Cyprus. He provided the comic relief without being over the top. Cassio was the naive, young lieutenant who fell from Othello’s favor because he couldn’t handle alcohol.
As pointed out above, this production emphasized religion and violence (Othello has these bursts, escalating as we go on). Othello wore a noticeable gold cross around his neck. In early scenes, the soldiers, including Cassio, wore outfits like the Knights Templar- chain mail and white tunics with large red crosses. (I don’t know if that is accurate, but think it’s possible.) Also, characters often crossed themselves when they were fearful, worried, etc.