The power of Othello and its enduring attraction to both dramatists and audiences has rested upon its dual strengths of an enduring relevance to current concerns surrounding race and any social exclusion arising thereof and its vivid depiction of the corrupting influence of jealousy upon the human psyche. I want to highlight a feature of this particular RSC production which only really struck me in hindsight: that is, the relative absence of race and cultural ‘otherness’ as forces shaping characters and events within the play. This is not to say that they are absent. Othello’s ‘otherness’ is neatly depicted in an epigraph showing first the European characters chanting a hymn, bearing ornate crosses as an ostentatious display of their Christianity and then being succeeded by Othello chanting a North African folk-tune to vaguely Arabic/Magrebien musical accompaniment, as he dances with Desdemona, finally offering her the infamous handkerchief. Yet it is primarily jealousy and the mendacity of Iago which seems to interest Director Kathryn Hunter and for the rest of the performance, references to Othello’s race are curiously muted (the “haply, for I am black” line, being almost mumbled by Patrice Naiambana).
Without this element, the play feels curiously bereft. One doesn’t sense any great pressure upon Othello, in the form of a desperate need to consolidate his honour and standing and,to conform to the alien norms of Venetian culture. In this isolated context, his growing paranoia and suspicion seem less tragic and more irrational. He is stripped of any dignity that he might gain from his deception. His self-destructive spiral into murder and despair gains only a brutality which would have arguably dismayed Robeson in its dehumanising vigour. Naiambana’s physical presence and acting are exceptional, notably during his frenzied fit at the start of Act IV. Equally, his tenderness towards Desdemona, particularly in the way he lovingly stresses every syllable of her name, is another strong point. Yet when called upon to express anger or distress verbally, he is less sure, descending into overwrought readings which veer in tone between falsetto and bass, in a fashion that resembles a particularly broken-voiced adolescent. His grunts and wails of primitive emotional distress could have served as a moving expression of grief and rage which surpass words, but lose their potency through over-use. However, at key moments within the play, most prominently in his final speech (“I have done the state some service…”) he delivers his lines with a composure and power which leaves one regretting that he had not shown similar skill more consistently.
Even more problematic is Michael Gould’s portrayal of Iago. Conventionally, there are two extremes to be avoided in portraying this most inscrutable of Shakespeare’s antagonists. One is to depict him as a sort of boisterous pantomime villain, a figure of fun who treats his work as a form of colossal jape. The other is to turn him into a Machiavellian plotter who calculates and manipulates in a way that echoes Coleridge’s description of him as ‘motiveless malignity’. Gould’s portrayal avoids both extremes, but only by treating Iago as a sort of paranoiac neurotic. “I hate the Moor”, he screams, with uncontrolled violence, but in adopting a persona which frankly resembles Rodney from Only Fools and Horses, complete with wheeler-dealer sales-pitch and an oleaginous charm, he is deprived of any aura of menace. How does such a visibly nervous, paranoid, skittish individual exert such influence over the man who is nominally his master? It is a question that is never satisfactorily answered.
Praise is due to both Tamzin Griffin (Emilia) and Natalia Tena (Desdemona) who interpret their roles with naturalism and confidence which makes them uniquely convincing. The most obvious sign of this confidence lies in their reading of their lines: only they seem comfortable with the words they speak. Iago, Roderigo, Brabantio, Othello, etc. all speak far too quickly. Phrases are fired off like rounds from a Gatling Gun, stripping them of their resonance and lyric beauty. This would be a tragedy in just about any production of a Shakespearean work, but in ‘Othello’, it almost reaches the level of a crime. Shakespeare is a playwright whose turns of phrase must be savoured, whose words must be weighed and given their full exhibition. It is as much, in spite of what I said at the beginning of this review, the richness of his language which makes him our greatest ever writer (my opinion only, feel free to differ), as his penetrating and almost unsettling understanding of human psychology, of behaviour and idiosyncracy, of manipulating emotions and surprising us as we read or listen. In The Merchant of Venice, a play often reviled for its crude anti-Semitism, we nonetheless have one of the most powerful pleas for tolerance in English literature (“Hath not a Jew eyes…”, Act III, scene I). Such is the remarkable potency of the Bard’s work.
The RSC have not produced a monstrosity or a hopelessly wrong-headed production, but there is something lacking nonetheless. The heart of this play endures through the sheer intensity of its words, but the soul that great performances imbue it with is lacking and consequently, what we have may not be a ‘problem play’, but it is very much a ‘problem production’.