Saturday, October 13, 2007

Othello, Shakespeare's domestic tragedy

After a full day of intense professional development, the theatre teachers looked at each other and wondered out loud if we had the strength of mind to sit through an intense Shakespearean tragedy. Word was out in the city of Cincinnati that this Othello was a remarkable production and so a number of us decided to gird our loins and head over to the Cincinnati Playhouse -- and we were oh so very glad we did.

I've seen some excellent Shakespeare on stage in my life, but I don't think I've ever seen anything so powerful as this production. The Shelterhouse Theatre is an intimate space, perfect for this "domestic tragedy," so described in the director's notes. (Production details and information can be found here.)

The audience was hanging not only on every word, but on every action and breath. We were struck by the masterful way Iago planted the seeds of jealousy in Othello's mind, torturing him to the point of utter blindness to truth and reason. We were captivated by the lovely Desdemona, shuddering in horrified anticipation of her untimely death, which was staged so realistically that I tried to avert my eyes but could not.

The women were so strong that I thought at one point -- Shakespeare must have written the first feminist drama without even knowing he did so. Bianca, Emilia and Desdemona, were all victims of their lords and masters, yet each in her own way resisted, fighting with body and voice. I don't think I will ever forget the image of Othello kissing Desdemona to her death, stopping her mouth and nose from breathing as her hands tore at his massive arms, until at last a final flutter.

It all seemed terrifyingly modern and as real as the ugly sound of "bitch" and 'slut" through thin apartment walls.

The image above is of Paul Robeson and Uta Hagen in one of the most famous 20th century productions of Othello. I've often wished I had been around to see Robeson on stage in Othello, but after tonight I think I've witnessed something comparable.

1 comment:

Village Green said...

As I re-read this post, I'm struck that I didn't have anything to say about the race issue of Othello and Desdemona. Perhaps it is because in my mind there is no issue. Certainly Shakespeare does put overtly racist comments in the mouths of some of his characters, yet at the same time everybody is treating Othello as a hero and a leader. I've always felt that Othello was a very progressive play.