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Othello Theatre Kraken

There’s an undeniably powerful moment in Theatre Kraken’s production of Othello when the tormented Venetian general of the title unleashes his savagery on Iago, the diabolical ensign who has been slowly and subtly driving Othello to his doom.

By this point in the play, Iago has already planted the canker of suspicion in the man he hates —  the suspicion that Othello’s wife Desdemona has been unfaithful. So this sudden explosion of wrath comes as Iago is stepping up his insinuations. Othello abruptly loses it — grabbing the man he considered a friend, locking his head in the stocks, and proceeding to beat him mercilessly.

It’s an over-the-top sequence, also a shocking one. But it shows the readiness of its two stars — Chris Lucas (Othello) and Michael Swatton (Iago) to reach levels of raw-nerved theatricality. And it has been staged with unbridled ferocity by director Don Fex who can claim validation for its excesses from the intensity of Shakespeare’s own text at this point in the play.

But in the production currently at the Gladstone, the scene is also useful in correcting a recurring imbalance in one’s perception of the play — the perception that Othello is really about Iago, whose cunning manipulations cause mayhem. In the current instance, Othello does take control of things  — but, with sad irony, his meltdown signals further loss of control over his life. And soon Iago will push him further towards his ultimate self-destruction.

Next to Richard lll, Iago is probably the most popular Shakespearean villain among audiences. And with the largest number of lines in the play, he has further capacity for engaging our attention. Furthermore some directors do focus unrepentantly on Iago. American actor James Earl Jones, who  portrayed Othello with distinction on more than one occasion, once did the role on Broadway under the direction of Peter Coe who believed that this was really Iago’s play and gave full rein to Christopher Plummer who had been cast in that part. It was not a happy experience for Jones.

The most memorable productions have sought to maintain a balance. Indeed, one legendary post-war revival at London’s Old Vic Theatre featured Richard Burton and future Stratford Festival artistic director John Neville giving full value to both roles by alternating in them.

Othello is a tragedy about jealousy — in this instance the canker of sexual jealousy — and its dreadful consequences as Iago gradually manipulates Othello into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful and eventually drives him into murdering her in a sequence that in this production is driven by an unhinged brutality.

So what about the production itself? Let it be said that on its own terms, it provides a worthwhile and sometimes riveting three hours of theatre. However, it seems more successful with the melodramatic flourish than in invoking the hothouse, psychological intensity of the play’s confined world. Furthermore, it fails to provide a case for its foolish gesture toward “relevance” by resetting Othello amidst the turmoil of the 19th Century Civil War in the United States, Director Don Fex’s comments in the printed program even imply some peculiar connection with Donald Trump and the rise of the alt right and last year’s infamous Charlottesville protests. This is more than a stretch. It is preposterous nonsense to apply this agenda to a play with the full title, Othello: Moor Of Venice, and blithely to ignore references to Turkish wars and the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. It is also pure fantasy to suggest that miscegenation, in the form of the black Othello’s marriage to the white Desdemona, would be tolerated under any circumstances — even in the fabricated world presented here. Still, there remains enough in this production to allow us to appreciate its virtues and disregard its pretensions.

J.C. Trewin once observed that the real tragedy of Othello is its “inevitability” — an inevitability that takes root in that early midnight scene where Iago seizes on Othello’s marriage to Desdemona to further his campaign of hate. But here, we have a production that seems a little loose and uncertain at the beginning in its failure to get a secure hold on what is happening and on the smouldering racial subtext of the exposition.

But Iago is still present to get our attention — and he does. Michael Swatton gives us something of a scruffy, second-rate schemer, with an innate gift for causing chaos and revelling in it. Whether we are able to accept him as pure evil is another matter. This Iago seems more earthbound than unearthly. Is there a real sense here of evil for evil’s sake — a sense of the mystery, the enigma, the motiveless malignity that has puzzled scholars for centuries? Perhaps not, but Swatton’s take on the character can be compelling. The power of a warped personality is there — also an inability to show compassion or remorse, an unsettling characteristic leading to bizarre manifestations of pleasure that betray an unsettling psychosis.

And what of the Othello of Chris Lucas? There could be more majesty here — Shakespeare gives Othello some great lines to speak — but the essential simplicity of the man’s nature is persuasively defined in Lucas’s performance. There is also the crucial revelation of fault lines — glimpses of vulnerability and insecurity — tiny moments that hint of a mind capable of snapping under certain conditions. What we don’t expect is the extent of Othello’s meltdown and the horror of his response when he fully accepts Iago’s trumped-up evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity. Yet even with the play reaching its ghastly climax, the sense of an unfairly ravaged life remains — reminding you that, in Cassio’s words, this was “a man great of  heart.”

Lighting designer John Solman ensures some appropriate gloom for a play that takes place largely at night. Director Don Fex’s set design is spare but functional, but Trish Murray’s costumes are a bit of a mish-mash and at times ill-fitting.

The play emerges almost as a chamber piece under Fex’s direction. That’s all to the good. Othello is essentially a domestic tragedy, claustrophobic and scalding in its emotional intensity. These are qualities underscored in a production that also isn’t afraid to take on the chemistry of a fevered dream — particularly when emotions become violent and uncontrollable. Bernard Shaw used the term “word-music” to describe the wild, abstract imagery of the jealousy scenes, and he scorned any attempt on he part of an actor to make sense of them, suggesting instead that the voice should merely become an instrument at such moments.

So if this production of Othello may not convey the full tragedy of a noble soul brought down, it still proves rewarding. It has narrative clarity. It moves fluidly. And it features a cast generally comfortable with the demands of Shakespearean verse.

The Desdemona of Meghan de Chaste lain gives us a child bride, capable of genuine love and affection, but also trusting and courageous. As Cassio, an early victim of Iago’s machinations, Nicholas Dave Arnott succeeds with a sturdier reading than one might expect from such a problematic character. Ian McMullen is very effective as Rodrigo, the muddle-headed ninny who can’t get over the fact that Desdemona preferred Othello to him. The dependable Lawrence Evenchick delivers a solid little cameo as a Venetian envoy. Robin Hodge overcomes some early tentativeness as Iago’s unfortunate wife, Emilia, to supply some powerhouse moments at the climax. Steph Goodwin is a delight as a tenacious tart named Bianca.

And yes, the production does serve the play’s essential message — that Othello is the tragedy of a free and open nature.

 

Othello by William Shakespeare

A Theatre Kraken production

Gladstone Theatre to Feb. 10

 

Director: Don Fex

Costume Designer: Trish Murray

Fight choreographer: Aaron Lajeunesse

Lighting: John Solman

Set and sound design: Don Fex

 

Cast

Othello: Chris Lucas

Iago: Michael Swatton

Desdemona:  Meghan de Chastelain

Cassio: Nicholas Dave Amott

Roderigo: Ian McMullen

Emilia: Robin Hodge

Brabantio/Gratiano: William Beddoe

Duke: Allan Zander

Bianca/Montano/Messenger: Steph Goodwin

Lodovico: Lawrence Evenchick

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s an undeniably powerful moment in Theatre Kraken’s production of Othello when the tormented Venetian general of the title unleashes his savagery on Iago, the diabolical ensign who has been slowly and subtly driving Othello to his doom.

By this point in the play, Iago has already planted the canker of suspicion in the man he hates —  the suspicion that Othello’s wife Desdemona has been unfaithful. So this sudden explosion of wrath comes as Iago is stepping up his insinuations. Othello abruptly loses it — grabbing the man he considered a friend, locking his head in the stocks, and proceeding to beat him mercilessly.

It’s an over-the-top sequence, also a shocking one. But it shows the readiness of its two stars — Chris Lucas (Othello) and Michael Swatton (Iago) to reach levels of raw-nerved theatricality. And it has been staged with unbridled ferocity by director Don Fex who can claim validation for its excesses from the intensity of Shakespeare’s own text at this point in the play.

But in the production currently at the Gladstone, the scene is also useful in correcting a recurring imbalance in one’s perception of the play — the perception that Othello is really about Iago, whose cunning manipulations cause mayhem. In the current instance, Othello does take control of things  — but, with sad irony, his meltdown signals further loss of control over his life. And soon Iago will push him further towards his ultimate self-destruction.

Next to Richard lll, Iago is probably the most popular Shakespearean villain among audiences. And with the largest number of lines in the play, he has further capacity for engaging our attention. Furthermore some directors do focus unrepentantly on Iago. American actor James Earl Jones, who  portrayed Othello with distinction on more than one occasion, once did the role on Broadway under the direction of Peter Coe who believed that this was really Iago’s play and gave full rein to Christopher Plummer who had been cast in that part. It was not a happy experience for Jones.

The most memorable productions have sought to maintain a balance. Indeed, one legendary post-war revival at London’s Old Vic Theatre featured Richard Burton and future Stratford Festival artistic director John Neville giving full value to both roles by alternating in them.

Othello is a tragedy about jealousy — in this instance the canker of sexual jealousy — and its dreadful consequences as Iago gradually manipulates Othello into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful and eventually drives him into murdering her in a sequence that in this production is driven by an unhinged brutality.

So what about the production itself? Let it be said that on its own terms, it provides a worthwhile and sometimes riveting three hours of theatre. However, it seems more successful with the melodramatic flourish than in invoking the hothouse, psychological intensity of the play’s confined world. Furthermore, it fails to provide a case for its foolish gesture toward “relevance” by resetting Othello amidst the turmoil of the 19th Century Civil War in the United States, Director Don Fex’s comments in the printed program even imply some peculiar connection with Donald Trump and the rise of the alt right and last year’s infamous Charlottesville protests. This is more than a stretch. It is preposterous nonsense to apply this agenda to a play with the full title, Othello: Moor Of Venice, and blithely to ignore references to Turkish wars and the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. It is also pure fantasy to suggest that miscegenation, in the form of the black Othello’s marriage to the white Desdemona, would be tolerated under any circumstances — even in the fabricated world presented here. Still, there remains enough in this production to allow us to appreciate its virtues and disregard its pretensions.

J.C. Trewin once observed that the real tragedy of Othello is its “inevitability” — an inevitability that takes root in that early midnight scene where Iago seizes on Othello’s marriage to Desdemona to further his campaign of hate. But here, we have a production that seems a little loose and uncertain at the beginning in its failure to get a secure hold on what is happening and on the smouldering racial subtext of the exposition.

But Iago is still present to get our attention — and he does. Michael Swatton gives us something of a scruffy, second-rate schemer, with an innate gift for causing chaos and revelling in it. Whether we are able to accept him as pure evil is another matter. This Iago seems more earthbound than unearthly. Is there a real sense here of evil for evil’s sake — a sense of the mystery, the enigma, the motiveless malignity that has puzzled scholars for centuries? Perhaps not, but Swatton’s take on the character can be compelling. The power of a warped personality is there — also an inability to show compassion or remorse, an unsettling characteristic leading to bizarre manifestations of pleasure that betray an unsettling psychosis.

And what of the Othello of Chris Lucas? There could be more majesty here — Shakespeare gives Othello some great lines to speak — but the essential simplicity of the man’s nature is persuasively defined in Lucas’s performance. There is also the crucial revelation of fault lines — glimpses of vulnerability and insecurity — tiny moments that hint of a mind capable of snapping under certain conditions. What we don’t expect is the extent of Othello’s meltdown and the horror of his response when he fully accepts Iago’s trumped-up evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity. Yet even with the play reaching its ghastly climax, the sense of an unfairly ravaged life remains — reminding you that, in Cassio’s words, this was “a man great of  heart.”

Lighting designer John Solman ensures some appropriate gloom for a play that takes place largely at night. Director Don Fex’s set design is spare but functional, but Trish Murray’s costumes are a bit of a mish-mash and at times ill-fitting.

The play emerges almost as a chamber piece under Fex’s direction. That’s all to the good. Othello is essentially a domestic tragedy, claustrophobic and scalding in its emotional intensity. These are qualities underscored in a production that also isn’t afraid to take on the chemistry of a fevered dream — particularly when emotions become violent and uncontrollable. Bernard Shaw used the term “word-music” to describe the wild, abstract imagery of the jealousy scenes, and he scorned any attempt on he part of an actor to make sense of them, suggesting instead that the voice should merely become an instrument at such moments.

So if this production of Othello may not convey the full tragedy of a noble soul brought down, it still proves rewarding. It has narrative clarity. It moves fluidly. And it features a cast generally comfortable with the demands of Shakespearean verse.

The Desdemona of Meghan de Chaste lain gives us a child bride, capable of genuine love and affection, but also trusting and courageous. As Cassio, an early victim of Iago’s machinations, Nicholas Dave Arnott succeeds with a sturdier reading than one might expect from such a problematic character. Ian McMullen is very effective as Rodrigo, the muddle-headed ninny who can’t get over the fact that Desdemona preferred Othello to him. The dependable Lawrence Evenchick delivers a solid little cameo as a Venetian envoy. Robin Hodge overcomes some early tentativeness as Iago’s unfortunate wife, Emilia, to supply some powerhouse moments at the climax. Steph Goodwin is a delight as a tenacious tart named Bianca.

And yes, the production does serve the play’s essential message — that Othello is the tragedy of a free and open nature.

 

Othello by William Shakespeare

A Theatre Kraken production

Gladstone Theatre to Feb. 10

 

Director: Don Fex

Costume Designer: Trish Murray

Fight choreographer: Aaron Lajeunesse

Lighting: John Solman

Set and sound design: Don Fex

 

Cast

Othello: Chris Lucas

Iago: Michael Swatton

Desdemona:  Meghan de Chastelain

Cassio: Nicholas Dave Amott

Roderigo: Ian McMullen

Emilia: Robin Hodge

Brabantio/Gratiano: William Beddoe

Duke: Allan Zander

Bianca/Montano/Messenger: Steph Goodwin

Lodovico: Lawrence Evenchick