For the first Othello in its twenty-year history Bard plays it pretty safe. Unlike his refreshing Hamlet and outrageous Midsummer Night’s Dream, director Dean Paul Gibson tarts up nothing here. He delivers a very clear, straightforward production on Kevin McAllister’s unadorned Stratford-esque thrust stage. This is not an Othello (nor an Othello) that is likely going to knock you out. Both Gibson’s production and Michael Blake in the title role offer sketches of Shakespearean power and complexity more than full-fledged portraits. But there’s more than enough here to remind us of what a brilliant play this is, and the opportunities it provides for bravura acting.
One of the difficulties of doing the play is finding a balance between theatrically exciting Iago and rather sedate Othello, at least until O’s jealousy starts making him crazy—and interesting. As if challenging the director, Shakespeare gives Iago the opening scene and says, in effect, “Okay, now let’s see Othello top this!” Iago establishes his witty, complex, self-conscious, almost joyful villainy in a series of wonderful speeches, and his character rules the stage for the first two acts. The Paradise Lost syndrome (Milton sets out to “justify the ways of God to man,” but in spite of himself makes Satan much more theatrically attractive than God) is nowhere more evident than in the first parts of this play.
As Iago, Bob Frazer again reinforces his status as the company’s alpha-male. He masterfully pulls the strings of Roderigo, Cassio, and Othello, making them all dance to the oily, racist charm of his seductive tunes. He’s especially adept at manipulating the circumstantial case against Desdemona and Cassio. I just would have liked to see Frazer’s Iago take a little more visceral pleasure in the success of his Machiavellian schemes.
Blake’s Othello doesn’t give much away in those first acts. He doesn’t look or sound a lot like the rough-hewn warrior he describes himself as being, and he shows few signs of the characteristics that will lead him very soon to kill what he loves most in the world. Blake looks younger than the Othello we’ve come to expect (he hardly seems older than Naomi Wright’s Desdemona or Kevin MacDonald’s Cassio), and lacks the gravitas of some of the actors who have defined the role in modern times: James Earl Jones, say, or (for better or worse) Olivier.
It’s easy to see what Desdemona sees in this Othello: he’s handsome, charming and noble. But he lacks some of the size that would make him a worthy antagonist for Iago, or make his tragic fall pitiful and terrifying. Only after Iago slips Othello the poison pill of jealousy does Blake’s Othello ironically grow into his true heroic stature. His torment is terrible, his vows of vengeance terrifying. And the murder scene itself is very powerful.
Wright’s Desdemona is sensible, articulate, and down-to-earth, and her horror when Othello turns on her is very affecting. But, as she often has at Bard, Jennifer Lines runs away with the female acting honours. Part of it is that Iago’s wife Emilia is to Desdemona as Iago is to Othello: a theatrically more dynamic character. But give credit to the actor, too. When Lines’ Emilia expresses her outrage at the criminally stupid men who have allowed the tragedy to happen, there’s no one whom she doesn’t blast off the stage.
In the smaller roles I liked Parnelli Parnes as the obsessively gullible Roderigo and especially Ian Butcher as Montano, the strongest character in the otherwise nondescript Venetian and Cypriot courts.