“Royal Shakespeare Company: Othello” (2015)

addresses the character of Iago in a very different way, I think. Because suddenly, it heightens – for me anyway – the sense of betrayal. The sense of broken trust, the sense that you and I – as [Iago] says right at the beginning to Roderigo – we have fought in Rhodes, in Cyprus, on others’ grounds, Christian and heathen, we’ve seen war together, you and I, we are brothers. We’ve done it all together. But you went and chose that guy over me. -Lucian Msamati, actor

This is the first RSC production of Othello w/ a black Iago- and it really works! It’s also a modern adaptation featuring a diverse cast (who speak w/ a variety of accents) and live music (incl. from an oud). The director of this production, Iqbal Khan, is of Pakistani heritage. He grew up in inner-city Birmingham, England; his mother raised five sons after their father died young. Khan (who is now 50) was the first British Asian to direct a play in the West End. Iago (Lucian Msamati- born/raised in Zimbabwe of Tanzanian heritage) has an unique take on the famed villain. You may know Msamati as the charming pirate, Salladhor San, on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Othello (Hugh Quarshie- known for his stage work in the UK) is not as “noble” as we’re used to seeing.

Msamati’s excellent Iago is a stocky, tactically highly engaging figure who develops a cheeky rapport with the audience. His wounded racial pride can be heard, though, in the folk song he sings… -Paul Taylor (The Independent)

Desdemona (Joanna Vanderham- of Dutch heritage and raised in Scotland) is more spirited than usual; she was in the popular TV series- The Paradise. Despite the obvious age gap, this Othello and Desdemona have good chemistry. Roderigo (James Corrigan) is a Florentine and former suitor of Desdemona; he thinks he can still win her back. Iago knows just how to manipulate the younger man; Roderigo is like a puppet. Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) is the Florentine lieutenant to Othello who can’t hold his liquor; he is untested in battle. Roderigo has a sense of entitlement, as does Cassio (who tries to rap in one scene). Emilia (Ayesha Dharkar- born/raised in India and known work in indie films) is Iago’s neglected wife and serves Desdemona. Dharkar speaks w/ her natural Indian accent. Iago suspects her of being unfaithful (w/ Othello); their relationship has become bitter, much to her disappointment.

…it reinforces the historic bond between Othello and Iago, and helps to explain the trust the former places in his ensign. By making Othello the commander of a multi-racial unit, Khan also exposes the unresolved tensions in the group: you can see exactly why Iago would detest a Caucasian Cassio who tries to show his kinship with the men by taking part in a rap contest… -Michael Billington (The Guardian)

Why does Othello trust Iago so much? Well, in this play, they are both black men in a society that is white-dominated. Othello had gone beyond the bounds by marrying a white woman; Desdemona’s father, Brabantio (Brian Protheroe), even accuses him of sorcery. Othello is of higher rank and more assimilated than Iago; most notably, Quarshie speaks w/ a British accent and Msamati uses one which is thicker than his natural one. We know this a play about jealousy, but it’s also about presentation. Othello won Desdemona b/c of his skill as a storyteller; Iago manipulated many w/ stories he created. You can watch the full play on Marquee TV; check out some videos below.

Director Iqbal Khan gives a brief synopsis of Othello.
Act 1, Scene 1 of the 2015 RSC production of Othello.
Act 3, Scene 3 of the 2015 RSC production of Othello.

“Royal Shakespeare Company: Love’s Labour Won” (2015)

Autumn 1918. A group of soldiers return from the trenches. The world-weary Benedick and his friend Claudio find themselves reacquainted with Beatrice and Hero. As memories of conflict give way to a life of parties and masked balls, Claudio and Hero fall madly, deeply in love, while Benedick and Beatrice reignite their own altogether more combative courtship. Set amidst the brittle high spirits of a post-war house party, where youthful passions run riot, lovers are deceived and happiness is threatened – before peace ultimately wins out. -Synopsis

I saw this play on Marquee TV (which is an arts and culture streaming service); I signed up for the free 14-day trial. The play is more commonly known as Much Ado About Nothing; it’s my favorite Shakespeare comedy. This adaptation is set in the time period made famous by the recent PBS drama series and movie Downton Abbey. Hero (Flora Spencer Longhurst) and Claudio (Tunji Kasim) are the younger/fresh-faced couple. Beatrice (Michelle Terry) and Benedick (Edward Bennett) are the slightly older/jaded pair content to be singletons. By means of “noting” (which sounds similar to “nothing,” meaning gossip, rumor, and overhearing), Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into confessing their love for each other; Claudio is tricked (by Don John and his accomplices) into rejecting Hero at the altar thinking she has been unfaithful.

We are in an English village w/ an estate fit for royals. In the living room, there is a tall/elegantly-decorated Christmas tree. In one hilarious scene, Benedick hides inside the tree (while Leonato, Prince Don Pedro, and Claudio discuss him and Beatrice). There are songs and dances which come from (or are orchestrated to fit) the early 1900s vibe. We hear “Sigh No More” sung by Balthasar; it tells women to accept men’s infidelity and keep on living w/ joy. In the 1993 film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, the song is featured prominently in both the opening and finale.

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,-
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.

Benedick and Beatrice (“too wise to woo peaceably”) are the main interest of the play; they have some of the best (and most memorable) lines. Terry (who became director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 2017) commented in an interview that “Beatrice felt very deeply,” so humor was a “defense mechanism” she used. I loved how this actress played the (pivotal) scene in the church.

I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.

Not till God make men of some other metal than earth [would she consider having a husband]

Benedick is a bit disappointed when his best pal (Claudio) has the “intention to turn husband.” Benedick is also adept at using humor. The life of a bachelor suits him best, and only a rare woman would convince him otherwise.

…But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

I wish my horse had the speed of your tongue.

I liked how this production created a balance between the light and serious moments. The humor is played (mostly) w/ subtlety, as would suit Brits from that era. Beatrice, Benedick, and some of the minor characters have scenes w/ physical humor. I was impressed by how light the actors were on their feet (when the scene called for it). You can watch some scenes below!

Beatrice and Benedick meet.
Leonato, Prince Don Pedro, and Claudio set a trap for Benedick.
Beatrice and Benedick say they love each other, but she wants him to kill Claudio!

“The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall” (2011)

In 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera arrived on the West End stage. After 25 years, the musical achieved global success, millions of viewers, a film adaptation in 2004 (which I don’t recommend) and a sequel. Filmed at the Royal Albert Hall, this performance (which you can rent on YouTube) brings the show to a bigger stage and celebrates its role as one of the biggest shows in theater history, w/ speeches, performances, and appearances by the original cast (and some notable Phantoms). Starring Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess, POTO tells the story of a deformed musical genius who lives underneath the Paris Opera House. Shunned by society, the Phantom seeks revenge (w/ cruel and violent acts). He’s in love w/ a chorus girl, Christine Daaé, who he has been secretly training to replace the leading lady.

Karimloo (who is Canadian) is engaging and very effective w/ his gorgeous voice and imposing physical presence. One side of his face looks genuinely scary; this was done by the original makeup artist. Boggess (who is American) is charming and her stage presence is as strong as Karimloo’s. Her soprano voice is bright and clear. She esp. does a terrific job w/ Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again. Past of the Point No Return was very compelling; two leads show that they have great chemistry together (even though The Phantom has on a hooded cloak). I learned that Boggess was the original Ariel in Broadway’s The Little Mermaid.

The encore featured 4 different Phantoms from around the world and was the debut for one of them: Peter Jöback from Sweden. He was scheduled to play the Phantom after the concert in London. The other 3 Phantoms who sing are: Colm Wilkinson (who is Irish; the original Canadian Phantom and Jean Valjean in Les Mis in London and NYC), John Owen-Jones (London’s longest running Phantom). and Anthony Warlow (Australia’s most famous Phantom). The original Phantom, Michael Crawford, was also there, as was the incomparable Sarah Brightman (the original Christine; former wife of Webber). I remember buying her CDs in HS.

The camera work allows you to admire the production design and does so unobtrusively, often it has a very cinematic look…

Hadley Fraser has a different take on the childhood sweetheart of Christine. Fraser brings an energy and eagerness to the character. I loved Fraser because he brings a new energy and charisma to the character.

[Karimloo] is both very threatening and very vulnerable. He is both aggressor and victim. He captures the fragility of the Phantom’s mind and the strength of the Phantom’s will.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Les Miserables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary” (2010)

The story is one we know and very simple: a former convict, Jean Valjean (Alfie Boe), tries to rebuild his life w/ adopted daughter Cosette after the death of her mother, Fantine (Lea Salonga). Valjean is pursued for years by a police inspector, Javert (Norm Lewis). Against the backdrop of student rebellions in Paris, a student named Marius (Nick Jonas) and the grown-up Cosette (Katie Hall) fall in love. The songs are also very memorable, incl. Who Am I? and Bring Him Home (sung by Valjean), I Dreamed a Dream (sung by Fantine), and On My Own (sung by Eponine). In a time when there are protests in cities (around the world) calling for racial equality and justice reform, this story still resonates.

Fans of the musical will notice that Salonga previously played Eponine in Great Performances: Les Misérables in Concert (1995)- the musical’s 10th anniversary. The petite (yet powerful) singer is the first full-blooded Filipina to have won the Olivier (1990), the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Theatre World Awards (1991) for Best Actress in a Musical for Miss Saigon. In recent years, she was a guest star on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a comedy w/ musical numbers. Most famously, Salonga was the singing voice of Princess Jasmine in the Disney animated movie Aladdin (1992). Not only is she an amazing singer, she also acts out every moment of her role here!

Samantha Barks (Eponine) played the same role in the 2012 film version. Jenny Galloway previously played Madame Thenardier (a crowd favorite) in 1995 and repeated her role in this production. Ramin Karimloo (Enjolras) went on to play the title role in The Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Concert a year later opposite Hadley Fraser (Grantaire) as Raoul. Karimloo (who fled Iran w/ his parents when the shah was overthrown in the early ’80s) made his Broadway debut as Valjean in the 2014 revival and earned a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. Lewis is perhaps best known as Edison, a senator and one of the ex-boyfriend’s of Olivia Pope on the ABC TV series- Scandal. He became the first Black actor to play the phantom in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. Unlike most of the other phantoms, he has a baritone voice (which is rich and very impressive).

At the end of the concert, we see the original 1985 cast, the international tour cast, and the current cast. We hear Colm Wilkinson (considered the best singer to portray Valjean), John Owen-Jones, Simon Bowman, and Boe sing Bring Him Home. There is an appearance by Michael Ball (the original Marius in the London production; a big star in the UK), composers, lyricist, and producer (Cameron Mackintosh). You can rent this show on YouTube; it’s a must-see for fans of the theater (esp. since we’re stuck at home)!

The casting of Nick Jonas, of Jonas Brothers fame, is little more than a casting publicity stunt, and one which almost backfires catastrophically. Quite simply, Jonas is leagues out of his depth, and his voice has not the power nor range to do justice to the role…

So many excellent singers have brought such depth and strength to the character of Jean Valjean and Alfie Boe does an admirable job. His beautiful rendition of “Bring Him Home” really proves he has the chops to handle this role.

Norm Lewis, whose subtle facial expressions and genuine passion commanded the stage/screen, sang Javert with such power and depth that I actually, for the first time, empathized with his character.

No other musical has the power to raise hairs and bring goosebumps throughout, and at the same time bring entire audiences to tears…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Hitchcock on Catholic Guilt: “I Confess” (1953) starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, & Karl Malden

German refugees, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) and his wife Alma (Dolly Haas), work as caretaker and housekeeper at a Catholic rectory in Québec City, Canada. While robbing the house of a lawyer (who he sometimes works for), Otto ends up killing the man. Racked w/ guilt, he heads to the church where Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) is up late. Otto confesses to murder; he says he wore a cassock that night as a disguise. After two schoolgirls come forward as witnesses, the police question all the local priests. Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) suspects Fr. Logan from the start, sensing that he’s hiding something. It turns out that the deceased was blackmailing Ruth (Anne Baxter), who grew up w/ Logan and loved him before he went off to fight in WWII. She loves him still, though is married to a politician.

Fr. Logan: I never thought of the priesthood as offering a hiding place.

Sir Alfred Hitchcock (who was raised Catholic) told a New York Times reporter in August 1952, that he chose Québec for filming because “in no American city do you find a priest walking down the street in a cassock.” This movie was based on the 1902 play “Nos deux consciences” by Paul Anthelme, a journalist. In the play, the priest and his lover had a baby, and the priest was hanged at the end. These elements had to be removed from the movie b/c of the Hays Code. I Confess was banned in Ireland b/c it showed a priest having a relationship w/ a woman (even though it took place before the character took orders). The screenwriter (George Tabori) wanted the script to be a subtle dig at the McCarthy hearings, as it centered on a man unable to tell the truth when questioned by authorities. Tabori found that Hitchcock only wanted to make a thriller. Peter Bogdanovich noted that this is a favorite of French New Wave directors.

Hitchcock created detailed storyboards for each scene, as was his custom. He couldn’t understand Clift’s Method acting technique; he became frustrated after the actor blew take after take, failing to follow instructions. Tension occurred over Clift’s insistence on having his acting coach (Maria Rostova) by his side. Hitchcock found that Clift didn’t listen to him at all. Karl Malden, who was friendly w/ Clift, found the process difficult. Clift would immediately turn to Rostova for feedback after each scene. Clift was drinking heavily also; he’d come on-set hungover (which wasn’t unusual for leading men in Hollywood’s Golden Age). As a closeted gay man, I’m sure he had a lot of pressure on his shoulders.

This isn’t your typical Hitchcock- it lacks the sly humor, memorable music, and (of course) the suspense he was known for. However, it’s atmospheric, moody, w/ a thread of foreboding running throughout. French is spoken a bit by supporting characters. There are towering old churches, crosses and crucifixes of all styles, marble statues, and houses of Parliament. There is a flashback section that’s quite engaging, where you see a lighter side of Clift and Baxter. I liked Clift and Malden together; they project very different energies. Malden famously played a priest in On the Waterfront; fans of The West Wing know him as President Bartlet’s priest. Baxter has her hair dyed blonde (which I thought was distracting) and wears some stylish outfits, thanks to Orry Kelly.

[1] Forced into complicity with the murderer, Father Logan behaves as though he is guilty despite his innocence…

[2] The movie is a somber psychological drama, and the story of a forbidden love, and perhaps a Christ allegory (the priest has to suffer for another man’s sins- he has to bear his own cross).

[3] When the camera sweeps up to a full screen view of Clift’s face and you see those glowing, brooding eyes, you fall under their collective spell.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews