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Theatre Reviews Stratford Festival 2019: An Othello with no heroes, or set, to lean on

Michael Blake as Othello and Amelia Sargisson as Desdemona in Othello.

David Hou/Handout

  • Othello
  • Written by: William Shakespeare
  • Director: Nigel Shawn Williams
  • Actors: Michael Blake, Gordon S. Miller, Amelia Sargisson and Laura Condlln
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 27

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Is Shakespeare’s Othello a tragedy about racism – or misogyny?

In the new, modern-day production directed by Nigel Shawn Williams at the Stratford Festival, it’s the way female characters are put down, pushed aside or ultimately “put out” like a light that makes the play a deeply perturbing one.

The exquisite actor Laura Condlln delivers the key performance as Emilia – who is married to Iago (Gordon S. Miller), an ensign in the Venetian army who treats his wife like dirt and uses her in a plot against his superior, and supposed friend, Othello (Michael Blake).

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Rather than being the attendant of Othello’s wife, Desdemona (Amelia Sargisson), Emilia is here a soldier who has been assigned to protect her. The apparent professional gender equality in this 2019-ish Venice, and personal equality between wives and husband (“my lord” seems a pet name when Desdemona says it), only makes men’s acts of cruelty and violence toward women that much more upsetting.

“’Tis not a year or two shows us a man: They are all but stomachs and we all but food,” Emilia tells Desdemona near the end, a line Condlln delivers with a bitter ache. “To eat us hungerly, and when they are full, they belch us.”

This hard-won wisdom leads her to take an action at the end that is the only true act of heroism in a play full of men who parade around imagining themselves to be heroes.

Iago (Gordon S. Miller, right) is an ensign in the Venetian army who treats his wife like dirt and uses her in a plot against his superior and supposed friend, Othello (Michael Blake, left).

Chris Young/Handout

Othello is the main one – and long-time Stratford company member Blake is, at first, masterful as the Moor. He makes the character as initially charming and noble as advertised, with a disarming smile that contains just a hint of overconfidence.

The Moorish general has to deal with a barrage of racist comments directed at him by white colleagues because of his black complexion, but he lets it all roll off his back – whether outright abuse or microaggressions. He knows his professional value on the battlefield.

Othello is less sure of his value in other departments. A single comment about Desdemona by her father, Brabantio (an excellent Randy Hughson), wounded that she has secretly married Othello, sinks into him: “She has deceived her father, and may thee.”

Brabantio is only the first man we meet who loves the women in his life only insofar as he feels he can control them like property.

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It’s this flaw in the whole society that Iago exploits to create chaos – first with the foolish Roderigo (the up-and-coming Farhang Ghajar), who he helps believe Desdemona is a thing to be purchased away; then with Othello, who he goads into thinking Desdemona is merely a lamp that is his to snuff out.

How can Othello be such a brilliant general and so blind to Iago’s obvious conniving? The answer here is that all the men are blind to the fact that they, too, are two-faced – noble in public affairs, monstrous in private ones. Williams’s production suggests militarism demands men cultivate a split personality – a civilized veneer at home, animal violence when off fighting abroad. (Why this doesn’t extend to the women in his Venetian army is unclear.)

How can Othello be such a brilliant general and so blind to Iago’s obvious conniving?

David Hou/Handout

The mercurial Johnathan Sousa’s Cassio is particularly good at swerving between the two, but the other main actors in Williams’s production have trouble navigating their characters’ twists and turns.

Othello’s transition to murderous jealousy is hard to follow; Blake comes at it from the outside in, with a twitchy physicality, as if it is an infirmity like his epilepsy. The actor’s inherent likeability works against him for a stretch, until the end, when it curdles brilliantly as he asks to be remembered as someone who loved “not wisely, but too well” to the aghast faces of the men and women looking upon a pile of corpses.

As Iago, Miller has a few flashes of troll-like brilliance – but also has difficulty carving out a clear or well-shaped arc. The character is notoriously hard to pin down: He gives all sorts of different reasons for his dual plots against Othello, who he kind of thinks maybe slept with his wife, and Cassio, who he definitely believes was promoted above him. Williams’s production adds in a visual preamble that suggests a motive of hate, as well: Iago writhing with disgust watching Othello and Desdemona get married.

Instead of a multifaceted performance, however, Miller delivers one that seems at war with itself. He is a naturally funny actor, but seems to be restraining himself – not always with success – from a comic delivery of lines. When he leans too hard into villainous, however, a cartoonish quality seeps in.

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The other reason this Othello can feel shapeless: It is the first production on Stratford’s thrust stage to feature “digital projections.”

There’s a jagged wall installed at the back of the thrust stage on which illustrations and atmospheric animations designed by Denyse Karn appear; they alternate between being dreary and distracting, and leave the actors standing, stranded, in empty space. It’s clear Williams has a serious take on the play, but it’s tough to sit through an Othello without heroes or a set to lean on.

Othello runs until Oct. 27.

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