In John Murrell's Taking Shakespeare, currently at the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre, a university freshman reading Othello for the first time wonders why the character of Iago is so inexplicably evil. At a Stratford restaurant the other day, I overheard a teenage girl, who had just seen a preview of Othello with her parents, wondering the same thing.
There is always something exciting in hearing young people encounter the Shakespearean conundrums that have bedevilled readers and theatregoers for centuries. And it's just as exciting to see how a young director will tackle those same conundrums.
The Othello the girl had seen is the haunting new production directed by Chris Abraham, which opened on Wednesday in the festival's Avon Theatre. Abraham has been building his Stratford cred for a few seasons now, with hits such as The Little Years and For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again. This is his first Shakespeare for the festival, however, and it's a triumph.
Abraham doesn't go out on any conceptual limb – this is a traditional treatment in Elizabethan garb – but he captures the tragedy's mood brilliantly. Shadowy, nightmarish, blood-tinged, this Othello grips you in its spell from the first scene and never lets you go. And it's as much a tour de force of acting as of atmosphere, with a rapier-sharp performance by Graham Abbey as Iago and a heart-piercing one by Dion Johnstone as the Moor.
With each corkscrew-twist of Julie Fox's rotating platform set, it feels as though we're slowly spiralling down into a hell of pure malice, agonizing doubt and poisonous jealousy. The devil turning the screw is Abbey's Iago, the bitter ensign that Othello has passed over for promotion, whose revenge against the general is out of all proportion to his grievance. Outwardly easy and jovial, in his sour soliloquies Abbey gives us a man so wound up with inner rage that he's on the brink of madness.
Mental illness is one way of explaining Iago's evil scheming. It may also be why he is obsessed with the ridiculous rumour that Othello has slept with his wife. When he speaks of it, Iago bursts into a paroxysm of fury. It suggests that, by infecting Othello with insane sexual jealousy, he is in fact passing on his own consuming disease.
Since Iago's plotting drives the play, there is always the danger that he will also dominate it. That's not the case here. Abraham achieves the right balance, with Abbey governing the first half only to give way to Johnstone's tortured Othello in the second part. Johnstone's dashing general is sweetly affectionate in his early scenes with Desdemona (Bethany Jillard); he's a mighty warrior softened by love. But when Iago causes him to doubt her fidelity, that softness turns into a painful vulnerability. By the time he comes to kill the thing he loves, his Othello has been reduced to a howling, pitiful creature, a broken toy in the jaws of the "green-ey'd monster."
And while Abraham has damped down the tragedy's racial angle, Johnstone's lilting Caribbean accent does give his Moor a nice added touch of exoticism next to all the Canadian-accented Venetians.
Jillard, who has played her share of female victims at Stratford, is a wanly pretty but strong-willed Desdemona, confident in her love. We share her unhappy bewilderment over her husband's sudden violent suspicions. And we silently cheer for the excellent Deborah Hay as Emilia, Iago's unfortunate wife, who is as vehemently forthright as her spouse is duplicitous.
As Cassio, Othello's disgraced lieutenant, Brad Hodder is by turns a scary drunk and a shame-faced supplicant. Mike Shara's whiny Roderigo, Desdemona's failed suitor and Iago's pet dupe, provides the few moments of comic relief. That is, if you don't count the darkly ironic laughs in the audience every time a character refers to "honest Iago."
Abraham's staging is spare in properties but rich in gloominess, as if the entire play took place at night. Michael Walton's lighting evokes its locales – Venice and Cyprus – by casting the shadows of archways on the blood-red walls of Fox's set. Her revolving and tilting platform serves as everything from battlements and a bedchamber to, in one bravura scene, the deck of a storm-tossed ship. Thomas Ryder Payne contributes a subtle soundscape and a spine-tingling score.
If I were introducing young people to Othello for the first time, this is the production to which I'd send them. Not only will it give them plenty to talk about, but it will also linger in their minds long after it is over.
Othello runs to Oct. 19.