Saturday, September 7, 2013

Eloquence: Othello and The Merchant of Venice at Stratford

Othello at Stratford

It might not be the most important thing about the Stratford Festival’s Othello, but it must be said: It’s a beautiful production. Designer Julie Fox and lighting designer Michael Walton – and, of course, director Chris Abraham – have collaborated on a visually stunning set, an apparently simple arrangement of large, blood-red vertical panels, enclosing a raked, diamond-shaped rotating and tilting stage. The three elements – stage, panels and lighting – prove remarkably flexible and evocative.

More important? The excellent performances of the three leads, Bethany Jillard as Desdemona, Graham Abbey as Iago and, especially, Dion Johnstone in the title role. These are not easy parts, for a variety of reasons, but the Stratford cast carries them off with skill and panache.

Everyone knows the story: Out of envy and more than a little racism, “honest Iago” plots and carries out a nasty scheme to drive a wedge between his brilliantly successful superior officer, the Moorish (read black) Othello, and the great general’s wife, the oh-so-white Venetian Desdemona. To this end, he outrages Desdemona’s father (“an old black ram is tupping your white ewe,” he reports to the Brabantio (Peter Hutt), nearly prompting a riot); lies about seeing Desdemona and Cassio (Brad Hodder), who has been promoted over him, embracing and kissing; almost incidentally ruins Cassio by getting him drunk and disorderly; and – memorably – arranges for an heirloom handkerchief, given to Desdemona by Othello, to be found in Cassio’s possession. That’s the final straw. By the end of the play, all three of the main characters are dead. (No spoiler alert necessary, of course, since Shakespearean tragedy routinely ends with bodies littering the stage.)

Over the course of these events, Desdemona moves from adoration to bewilderment to fear and, ultimately, resignation. Jillard performs these widely various states effectively and with dignity. I think her death scene, notoriously difficult to play (inexplicably, Desdemona dies twice), may be the most convincing I’ve ever seen. In fact, the entire production is convincing, not always the case with Othello, in which the proud, sensible and intelligent general, so clearly and deeply in love at the beginning of the play, becomes entirely unhinged by Iago’s machinations, to the point where only Desdemona’s death will serve. Johnstone – a tall, handsome man with impeccable carriage and lots of presence – modulates his performance deftly. This Othello’s descent into what can only be called madness is somehow made plausible, in part because, I think, the production stresses the racism of the era and of the white characters, and Othello’s insecurity in the face of it. Another nod to director Chris Abraham.

As in most Stratford productions, the cast “speaks Shakespeare” beautifully, with precise diction that nevertheless manages to be conversational. In one nice bit of business, this Othello speaks with a slight accent, just a trace of Caribbean lilt, emphasizing his foreignness and his blackness.

I have almost no nits to pick with the cast. Even such minor characters as Bianca (Shauna Black), the woman wooed and abandoned by Cassio, and Iago’s wife and unwitting co-conspirator, Emilia (Deborah Hay), are played adeptly and persuasively. Hodder brings as much gravitas and poise to Cassio as the role will support, given the character’s foremost purpose as dupe and his drunken fall from grace, and Mike Shara’s Roderigo, Iago’s foolish co-conspirator and financial backer, is nicely played, though perhaps more for laughs than necessary.

And through it all, there is that crimson set, shifting, revolving and transforming, scenes decorated and lighted with torches, occasional curtains or drapes, and dramatic lighting, all supplemented by the faintest of sounds, courtesy of sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne: a dog barking in the distance, gulls, wind. Often, the only decorative element onstage is a single haunting object (a creepy statue, a large, baroquely oriental umbrella). The death scene in the bedroom is spectacular, with the principals in white nightclothes, framed by tall, gauzy curtains and with massive, distorted shadows on the walls. All in all, this is a majestic production, compulsively watchable and packed with drama. If you’re only seeing one Shakespeare at Stratford this year, I believe Othello should be the one.

The Merchant of Venice at Stratford
And if you’re seeing only two, make The Merchant of Venice the second one. There’s not much truly new in this production, directed by the Festival’s artistic director, Antoni Cimolino – we’ve seen the setting in Fascist 1930s Italy before – but it is a nicely done production of a play that is performed too seldom, mostly because the subject of anti-Semitism must be approached with such caution.

To his credit, Cimolino tackles the matter head-on. This Merchant highlights the torments suffered by Shylock (Scott Wentworth), to the point where his stubborn demand for that legendary pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio (Tom McCamus) seems entirely understandable, if not entirely reasonable. He has, after all, been insulted and abused by the Christian citizens of Venice, and he has lost his daughter (who has, incidentally, stolen a considerable fortune while running off) to a Christian companion of his tormentors.

As usual, the comic half of the play, in which a series of suitors including the young Venetian Bassanio (Tyrell Crew) pursue the aristocratic Portia (Michelle Giroux), rests uncomfortably alongside the tragedy in the other half, which quickly becomes a nasty dispute between Jew and Christian, settled in the courts with an assist from Portia, disguised as a young male judge.

It’s hard to love Portia in this production, as attractive as she is. Shylock’s defeat, always crushing, seems grimmer and crueler in the context of the Fascistic background and black-shirted crowds, and the speeches by Mussolini that constantly play on the radio. I must add that the costumes, courtesy of Charlotte Dean, and Douglas Paraschuk’s wrought-iron sets, are lovely and perfectly in keeping with this thoughtful and eloquent production.

- Jack Kirchhoff is an arts journalist in Toronto.

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