Women cannot win in Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy currently being revived in a compelling production at New York Theatre Workshop. The same could be said about many women in the Bard’s canon, but it is especially apparent in the tale of the ambitious moor led to his downfall through the manipulation of insecurity and jealousy by his supposed friend and confidante Iago.
Directed by Sam Gold, this production is decidedly stripped down and modern, set in army barracks designed by Andrew Lieberman, with the audience seated on either side in bleachers. Laptops and smart phones adorn the performance space, which is lit by Jane Cox with a collision of coldly institutional devices that include overhead fluorescence, hand-held flashlights and helmet-mounted LEDs, after the first scene, which is staged in complete darkness and during which Iago, who is played by Daniel Craig, discusses his hatred of the Othello, played by David Oyelowo.
Iago sets out to avenge himself against Othello’s overlooking him for a promotion by manipulating the insecurities of everyone around him, beginning with Roderigo (Matthew Maher), who is infatuated with Desdemona (Rachel Brosnahan), who just happens to have married Othello on the sly, much to the displeasure of her father Brabantio (Glenn Fitzgerald). Unable to believe his daughter would wed a man of color, Brabantio accuses Othello of using spells and potions to bewitch his daughter until she calmly informs him of the truth. As the Duke, David Wilson Barnes provides amusing commentary throughout the confrontation.
That’s an early scene in the play and an important one. When questioned by her father of which man she should remain loyal to, Desdemona replies that her husband deserves her loyalty the most. Despite her confidently measured speech, the scene is uncomfortable to watch as Brabantio calls Othello a “foul thief” and declares, “Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters’ minds” before telling his son-in-law to “use Desdemona well.” His apparent feelings of possession towards of his daughter are downright distressing, and Desdemona’s desire for independence and partnership is clear: When her husband is relocated, she expects to travel with him.
Brosnahan and Oyelowo share a sensual chemistry and one wishes Othello and Desdemona could live a happy life together, but it’s clear that is impossible, for this is a world in which independent women are quickly sent to their doom. As Iago plants seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind about Desdemona’s loyalty to him, he ignores his own wife, played with a solid assurance by Marsha Stephanie Blake, except for asking her to unknowingly aid him in his plans.
Bringing Othello’s jealousy, and, ultimately, downfall to life, Oyelowo gives a performance of unrestrained passion. His jealousy escalates at rapid-fire speed, and he believes almost too quickly that his wife, who is more often than not referred to as “gentle” and “virtuous,” has been unfaithful to him with Michael Cassio (Finn Wittrock). His emotions continue to escalate, and he goes into epileptic fits, until he realizes how he has been manipulated and tricked.
The architect of Othello’s destruction is played with a casual ease by Craig, who, dressed in shorts, a t-shirt and rugged boots, portrays masculine tension with precise cold calculation. This Iago is a sociopath, detached and measured and confident that his actions are justified, who considers love “a lust of the blood and a permission of the will” and discusses “knocking out the brains” of Cassio with chilling calm.
Casual violence, lack of regard for others, racism, misogyny… watching this play in the wake of the election, it is impossible to ignore the parallels between Othello’s barracks and present-day America. And while all of these disturbing elements are clearly illuminated in Gold’s production, what lingered long after Othello had committed his last act of self-destruction was the idea that neither Desdemona or Emilia had any safe space in that world. Desdemona was too self-assured and pure of heart, while Emilia was too practical and pragmatic to exist alongside these men. Desdemona has so much faith in reason and goodwill that, even after her husband informs her he intends to kill her, she continues to attempt to converse with him rather than flee from their bedroom. Emilia, on the other hand, is harbors no illusions about nobility of mankind, and when she accuses her husband of his crimes, and he orders her to silence, she refuses, saying, “I will not charm my tongue. I’m bound to speak!” His response is to call her a “villainous whore” before taking her life.
And that doesn’t even include the sudden and violent death of Bianca, Cassio’s prostitute girlfriend, played by Nikki Massoud, who is treated dismissively by Cassio and slaughtered by Iago almost as an afterthought.
Othello dates back to the early 1600s. Viewing the carnage onstage, with dead bodies grouped together, the timelessness of the play was inescapable. One hopes it doesn’t paint a picture of the future.
Director: Sam Gold
Starring: Daniel Craig, David Oyelowo, David Wilson Barnes, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Rachel Brosnahan, Blake DeLong, Glenn Fitzgerald, Slate Holmgren, Anthony Michael Lopez, Matthew Maher, Nikki Massoud, Kyle Vincent Terry, and Finn Wittrock.
Scenic design: Andrew Lieberman
Costumes: David Zinn
Runs: Through January 18, 2017