Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Burying Shakespeare

First, the canal. Othello, thinks the designer, is set in Venice, so let’s have a canal, let’s start the play with Iago and Rodrigo sailing onto the stage in a gondola. Why is that not a good idea? For two reasons. One, it means the designer is working from the ideas in his own head instead of those in Shakespeare’s. There is nothing in the script to suggest that the audience needs to imagine that Iago and Rodrigo are in a gondola. Two, it is a distraction. The first thing that captures the audience’s attention is not what Iago and Rodrigo are saying but the fact that they are in a boat and there is real water on stage.

It is perhaps only a momentary distraction but, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production, there are more to come. There is, for example, Othello saying, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them,” when there are no swords. The case for modern dress productions rests on the idea of contemporary relevance, to which the play itself is sacrificed. When the old words clash with the new interpretation, the audience just has to put up with it. But it is a distraction.

Like the reports of the battle in Act II, which are made by people holding mobile phones to their ears and by a face on a television screen attached, somewhat implausibly, to the ancient stone wall of a Venetian building. Like the further use to which the canal is put in the interrogation scene (which Shakespeare forgot to include) when one of Othello’s prisoners (which Shakespeare forgot to mention) is water-boarded.

The costumes are a distraction too, especially the heavy combat boots worn by Othello and Iago. There is something about wearing combat boots that makes it difficult for an actor to speak in blank verse. In Elizabethan England, soldiers were poets, courtiers went to war. Elizabethan dramatists could put poetry into the mouths of soldiers, from Tamburlaine the Great to Othello, with no apparent incongruity. Not so now.

It was, in a sense, the combat boots that makes Lucian Msamati speak Iago’s lines as if they were prose. He speaks as a soldier wearing combat boots in a kind of steam-punk Venice with toy canals, television screens hanging on stone walls and generals using claw-hammers on their subordinates. What choice has he but to break up the flowing iambic pentameter that Shakespeare wrote and speak it in fragments?

The claw-hammer is a distraction too, Othello’s tortured soul finding implausible expression in the violent torture of Iago, strapped to a chair, held in a head-lock, with a claw-hammer pressed against his neck and blood pouring from his ear. There is no hint of this in the lines Shakespeare wrote. It is a distraction.

While Hugh Quarshie as Othello does not fracture the verse as Iago does, he speaks it, not in the character of a great adventurer of the Elizabethan world, a verbal conjuror capable of enchanting his listeners, be they the Duke of Venice or a young girl or, in the end, himself, but in that of an urbane, cultured diplomat. He was Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, when he should have been Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab.

The problem of racism treads as heavily over this production as do the combat boots and in exactly the same way. It is not Othello’s colour that Brabantio objects to, but two other things: that he stole his daughter from him and that he bewitched her. On both of those grounds, he has the Duke’s full support. When Othello is brought before them, he readily admits one fault, but not the other. If Desdemona was enchanted, he says, it was with the tales of his adventures, not with the ‘spells and medicines bought of mountebanks’ that her father accuses him of having used.

She loved me for the dangers I had past;
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used.

Since the whole of Elizabethan England was enthralled by the stories told by adventurers returning from the New World and could not get enough of them, it is hardly surprising that Othello should have won first Desdemona and then the Duke. ‘I think this tale would win my daughter too,’ he says. (Or rather, she, the Duke in this production being a Duchess.) But the actor, guided no doubt by the director, is anxious to avoid any kind of racial stereotyping, even to avoid using the full power of his deep, rich, African voice to enchant the audience as much as he enchanted Desdemona, and the Duke’s response seems hardly justified.

On the other hand, the director gives Iago a whole new scene in which he sings an old African song, a lament it seems for his past, for the lost homeland of a Iago who is tied to Othello, not only by bonds of military fellowship but, in this non-racist production, by race.

Not since Cordelia came on stage carrying an AK47 in the National Theatre’s most recent production of King Lear have I felt so sorry for Shakespeare. The case for modernisation is based on the false premise that modern audiences need help to understand how a play written four hundred years ago can still be relevant today, as if relevance is only a matter of historical detail. The consequence of this patronising view of audiences is that the play they get is a version of the original limited, distorted, even censored, by the director. Directors, like designers, have their own ideas, which are not always Shakespeare’s. They come not to praise Shakespeare, but to bury him.


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This entry was posted on September 2, 2015 by in Literature and tagged , , , .
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