The Canadian Act II (continued, yet again)

Next week we return to Stratford for our third and final visit of the season, then on to the Canadian Rockies for some much needed rest. And it occurs to me, I really ought to complete the reviews of the shows from our July trip before heading up there yet again.

So, in this and my next post, I’ll conclude my reviews of the Stratford shows I’ve seen to date. My review of this year’s production of The Merchant of Venice can be found here, and earlier reviews can be found by clicking the links in that piece.

And now, a return to Venice for the tragedy of its noble Moor, Othello.

I will admit at the outset, I have never seen a production of Othello that has truly satisfied me. And while this was by far the most engaging production I have seen to date, I cannot exempt it from that judgement.

This may partly be a function of personal temperament, and partly a function of cultural moment. Othello is meant to be a tragedy, which means that the Moor must be a tragic hero. But in our age we are unlikely to find a man whose sexual anxieties are as acute as Othello’s to be heroic or noble. It was striking, reading A.C. Bradley’s essays on Othello, how confidently he names Othello as Shakespeare’s noblest tragic hero, and how completely he accepts Othello’s own self-characterization as being not inclined to jealousy. That is not the Othello I read about when I read the play, and it is not the Othello I have ever seen portrayed on-stage, and I do not think it is my own temperament alone that makes me feel so great a distance between my own perceptions and those of the Edwardian critic.

It is not that we do not understand jealousy; far from it. I’ve seen multiple productions of The Winter’s Tale, some better than others, but none that entirely failed to move, and I’ve seen multiple productions of Cymbeline, with more varied results. And while it is hard to reconcile to either Leontes or Posthumous, hard to resist the desire to reject the reunions that conclude each play, that hard work, like the hard work of reconciliation in real life, is always worth it, and a director who sees this cannot fail to have success. But as Bradley himself points out with respect to Leontes, neither of these jealous husbands has, or requires, the stature to carry a tragedy, which Othello must have.

I am tempted to blame our difficulty on the sexual knowingness of our age; we are put off by Othello’s continence, put on our guard that there is something off about him sexually; we sense something unnatural about the match – not, by any means, what Desdemona’s father Brabantio saw as unnatural (the mingling of the races), nor what Samuel Johnson saw as unnatural (he condensed Othello to a moral fable about the risks of a May-December union, as if it were a School for Scandal), but rather a sense that what draws Othello and Desdemona to one another is very far from what we consider a healthy sexual attraction.

And yet, I do not think it is our knowingness that is the problem, because the Elizabethans were quite fully as knowing as we are, if not more so, and you would be hard-pressed to find a more sexually knowing major writer than Shakespeare. It’s not just that he can hardly get through a line of verse without a bad sexual pun; it’s that he manifests such insight into such a wide variety of sexual and romantic characters, from Innogen to Cressida, from Kate to Emilia, from Lady Macbeth to Goneril, from Juliet to Isabella, from Rosalind to Viola, from Helena to Cleopatra – and I haven’t listed any men yet!

Rather, I think it is something subtler, related to our knowingness but not identical to it. In my comments on King Lear, I talked about the difference between a tragic flaw and other kinds of flaws, and that is that a tragic flaw is not a vice but is the flip side of a virtue. You have the flaw because you have the virtue; that’s why we describe this as a tragic view of reality. Othello is a great general, a great leader and a great soldier, a man of enormous personal courage and magnetism, and of unimpeachable integrity. If his downfall is due to his "issues" then those "issues" must be closely allied to his great virtues. And I think we, unlike the Elizabethans, are reluctant to credit this perspective on human sexuality, or on human greatness.

By contrast, Iago is a character we can clasp to our bosoms, a fellow we understand very well – too well for our own good, I think. He is the avatar of resentment, a creature of pure destructive energy – he barely notices when he achieves the office that at the outset he sought, so bent is he on furthering his new career as a destroyer of men. We have all met characters like this, in person and on the stage of history. But few of them have fascinated the way Iago does. It is striking that Iago, a man of limited wit, no great accomplishment and no personally appealing qualities, and who announces to us his utter villainy with his every speech and act, can be so fascinating. He does not make us delight in a fantasy of murder, as Richard III does, because his villainy is, really, in the service of no ambition - who would fantasize being Iago? where would the fun be? Nor does he charm us with personal charm and an intelligence evidently superior to his station, as does Edmund in King Lear. And yet we are drawn to him by some kind of dark magnetism. Milton’s Satan is often compared to Iago, but the lightbringer is of too noble a spirit. Honestly; I would be more inclined to say that Iago is a antetype of Adolph Hitler, another avatar of resentment who seduced a nation of Othellos into murder (a nation with its own "issues" that might have had something to do with its own virtues as well).

The danger, of course, if that if we do not understand Othello, and do understand Iago, we make too much of the latter and too little of the former. If Othello does not have the stature of a hero, then Iago’s spirit grows to fill the vacuum. And you wind up with a rather different play than I think was intended. Not necessarily a bad play; indeed, potentially a very powerful play. But a very different play, and not obviously a tragedy.

This, I think, is what happened to the Stratford production, for reasons both related to the casting and the direction. Othello is played by Philip Akin. This is the first time an Afro-Canadian has played the role at Stratford, and most of the reviews seem to have decided that is all that need be said about Akin’s performance; it must be wonderful, by definition. And I can attest, Akin’s performance was certainly energetic, and certainly showed a fluency with the role. But I could not accommodate myself to his interpretation of the character. The problem begins very early on. Othello is supposed to be a man supremely in control of his emotions, and so comfortable with command that immediately to obey is every man’s instinct. And yet, in his first scene, when Brabantio comes to arrest him and bring him before the Duke, his first chance to demonstrate to us his natural charisma, he makes an absolutely disastrous choice. The lines:

Keep up your bridge swords, for the dew will rust them.
Good signior, you shall more command with years
Than with your weapons.

There is only one way to play these: with quiet, absolute command. The contrast with Brabantio’s shrieking should be manifest. Instead, Akin sinks immediately to the level of the brawlers, racing about the stage, shouting, shaking with anger and showering spittle. At once, we see that Othello is a man without control of his emotions, without natural command, without . . . well, frankly, without anything that should make us care one whit about his tragic fall, or understand why the state of Venice should be so desperate to retain his services. And the play dies on us, then and there.

Fortunately, the contrast with Iago could not be greater, and the play comes back to life whenever Jonathan Goad holds the stage. Iago is the greatest of Shakespeare’s three great artists of the living stage, three characters who stage the plays we see by manipulating all the characters before us. The other two are Prospero, in The Tempest, and Duke Vincentio, in Measure for Measure, but Iago is greater than either of them, because he is playing without a net. Prospero has his magic book; the Duke his hidden office; but Iago has nothing; they are dancing on the ground, while he dances on the air. Add to this the fact that Iago is plainly less intelligent than either the magus or the Duke, and the fact that Iago has no plain design, is improvising entirely, and you can understand why I say that Iago is by far the greatest of the three.

Goad fully understands this aspect of Iago’s character, and makes the most of it. We can hear the wheels turning in his mind, see him improvising a response to unexpected events. Iago takes pains to convince us that he has a plan, and we see that he is convinced, but we never are fooled ourselves into thinking he has a plan, and is in control of events. Goad also, and this is where he particularly excels other Iagos I have seen, makes utterly convincing the universally reported fact that everyone – with a crucial exception – thinks Iago is an excellent fellow – not, maybe, the best person to make your Lieutenant; not the most cunning strategist, but a solid fellow and an honest man, a man you’d want next to you in a foxhole. Goad moves fluidly from the easy outward manner that Iago manifests to the world to the vileness that he manifests in soliloquy; we do not see him putting the mask on and taking it off. It is the same man; we believe it; we see how this can be, and we understand infinitely better than we do on the page why this ludicrous, jerry-rigged plot could succeed. Iago is an extremely good liar because he is always emotionally in the scene – he’s not playing a part, he’s playing off what the other characters give him, like any great improvisational actor.

Because Goad’s Iago is so fine, I heartily recommend this Othello, in spite of my strong exception to the choices made by Akin. The remainder of the cast is a mixed bag, as is the production as a whole. Lucy Peacock portrays Emilia as a woman suffering terribly from having to live with Iago, and this choice is emotionally effective. But I question whether, if it is so obvious to her and everyone else that Iago treats her vilely, it is really plausible that nobody else – not even Desdemona – takes account of this fact when considering Iago’s character. (Goad himself is at his weakest in his scenes with Peacock, reminiscent of his far too blatant Angelo from two years back; Iago’s disgust should not be so visible to all, and he should manifest more control of himself, as he does in all his other scenes.) Stephen Russell is almost wholly unconvincing as Brabantio; the weakest scene in the play is the confrontation between Russell and Akin before the Duke, as nobody in the scene seems emotionally true to their characters or to the situation. By contrast, Claire Jullien is luminescent as Desdemona, haunting when she sings the "willow" song that is the portent of her doom, and convincing in her affection for her husband both before and after his turn to jealousy. Jeffrey Wetsch is a decent Cassio; the only thing we miss is what Othello sees in this charming and well-bred but not obviously talented young man. And Gordon Miller does some of the best work I’ve seen him do as Iago’s pathetic sap, Roderigo. I’d be curious to see if he has a Aguecheek in him yet.

Apart from the interpretation of the hero, though, the biggest problems with this production are blocking and design. The costumes appear to have been re-fashioned from last year’s Dutchess of Malfi, a rhapsody in black. That was appropriate for Malfi, a production I, well, I’m not sure "enjoyed" is precisely the word, and it might be for Macbeth as well, but for Othello it is perplexing. This is a dark play, but it is about a shadow falling on a well-lighted world, and I think the darkness of the palate mis-represents the emotional world in which the action takes place. And, as a practical matter, it makes it very difficult to tell the various soldiers apart when they are dressed so interchangeably. Finally, the blocking struck me as surprisingly static; over and over, I found myself looking at a tableau rather than a scene. Othello starts very quickly as a play, and yet the static nature of the blocking slowed the production down more than once, and the play needed to be given a jump-start by the villain in soliloquy (ironically, Goad in soliloquy is frequently more mobile than he is when he shares the stage with others).

On the whole, I have relatively low expectations for Othello; for all the reasons that I began this essay with, I think it is a difficult play for a contemporary director and audience to work with. Given that, my expectations were very substantially exceeded. But I am disappointed once again in the title role, as I fear I am doomed always to be.