Sunday, 10 July 2016

Othello in the rain

I went to the final night of Othello in the annual outdoor production at Stafford Castle.

It was set in 1950s, in Venice and in Cyprus.

It is probably 40 years since I last read Othello, so the play felt for me quite new. I knew the tragic conclusion but I had forgotten the tangled story that leads to it.

I came to the play after a hard day’s work, but it held my attention completely, right up to the end, in the pouring rain, just before midnight. One reason for this was the way in which it was prompting me to think about troubling issues in  our world now.

Coming so shortly after the EU referendum it was an uncomfortable reminder that the racism that fuelled Brexit has deep roots. The language Shakespeare uses to explore this is very direct, I doubt that anyone could or would say such things now, but the Brexit vote gives us a window into some dark places, the things people do not say.  Shakespeare's words challenge us.

I had gone to the play with a question, “what exactly is Iago’s problem?” I am not sure that I have a clear answer, (I am told his motivation is strongly disputed by academics).

What this production showed us was an Iago who was a disappointed man. Often patronised, often overlooked. possibly sexually conflicted. He is just a trusted aide, not expected to be the main player, but his controlled and controlling presence dominates the stage. He talks directly to the audience, selecting individuals, with a word or a look, making all of us complicit.

He has scores to settle, and he uses his undoubted powers of persuasion, his understanding of human weakness, to control all of the players in his play. He takes pleasure in all of this. We watch with horrified fascination.

I thought about the persuaders in our time now, politicians, press barons, commentators, and the way in which they use words to sow the ideas that will take root in people’s hearts and grow there, out of sight; Poisoning people from within.

The play gives us a troubling insight into attitudes to women, and to domestic violence, all of which has a particular resonance today for people like myself who follow the archers. Iago, like today's villain Rob Titchener needs to control and weaves an ever more complex web that will finally trap him too.

The powerful physical presence of the actor playing Othello  (Oliver Wilson) is a shocking reminder of the menace of a strong man in the grip of  ill-conceived jealousy.

Like most of Shakespeare’s tragedies it ends in blood, with the killings directly or indirectly driven by Iago.

I did not fully grasp from the production that Desdemona was a mere child of 14 marrying a career soldier and diplomat some 20 years her senior. That too is obviously a pretty difficult matter, given one of the other preoccupations of today’s world.

I could not say it was an enjoyable evening, but I am glad that I went, and I am glad that somehow, against the odds the Gatehouse Theatre manages to keep on giving us a Shakespeare play. Here is hoping for many more.

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