Thursday, 13 August 2015

Out, damned spot (or spot the difference…)

Othello cannot be accepted in part because he simply looks so different from your average Shakespeare character. He is one of only a few explicit characters of colour in the 38 known plays so, certainly at the time when Shakespeare wrote and produced it, Othello’s skin is usually different from everyone else’s on stage…. It is difficult in the heightened hothouse of the theatre to become colour blind, for audiences are meant to notice everything…. Of course we will be constantly aware that Othello is black, even if he is surrounded by a variety of skin colours, as in this production.
Tracy Chevalier: Othello alone

Except we’re not “constantly aware”. Not aware at all. (Well, this audience member wasn’t – even though I had just re-read the play: which I had believed, on entering the theatre, clearly stressed our hero’s differences.) That presumptive (patronizing?) “of course”, therefore, feels like an excuse; an evasive explanation; an almost peculiarly-vantaged, over-enthusiastic vindication of what we – the average white band of middle-class theatregoers – are supposed to feel.

But, because of this lack of awareness, I am sad to report (from my peculiar vantage) that the RSC’s current production of Othello loses something… – that ‘otherness’, that ‘outsider’ quality (and, rightly, I think, according to Chevalier, “the price you pay for that difference”) – the “something” (let’s be blunt, and call it what it is: racism; racial discrimination) that makes Othello such a pivotal (and important – and not just in the specific context of this play…) character. Simply put: that which makes Othello what he is – and before he enters. [Of course, we all bring our individual experiences (of the worlds both inside and outside the theatre) – as well as our individual cultural references, expectations, desires – to each performance; and it should not be supposed by anyone that these overlap or share any commonality in any way: never mind are identical.]

I think that the RSC, to give it credit, has been at the forefront of diversity in casting….

In her programme note, Chevalier also writes (occupying the first ellipsis in that leading quote) that “Shakespeare would be astonished at how global and varied actors and audiences have become”. But I, for one, am not. (And, maybe, neither would Big Bill. Who knows?) I was born four centuries later; and grew up in an extremely multicultural environment and society: far, far removed from that Bard’s Jacobethan past. From his vantage: we are a foreign country, now; enmeshed in a cacophonous, glorious rainbow. We do things differently here. I am therefore – as I presume (and pray) are many of my generation – permanently non-discriminatory: unconscious of skin colour. Additionally, I struggle to bring to mind a company at the RSC that wasn’t readily and naturally so varied anyway – no matter the rôles involved. We therefore take it for granted – surely? – that we will always be “surrounded by a variety of skin colours” in the theatre. Therefore, simply taunted (or driven) to death by an Iago (whose motives have always seemed to me somewhat specious) who just happens, also, to be black – as are quite a few of the cast – the play loses much of its momentum; and Othello (who seems to fit in just perfectly, regardless of skin colour) just becomes another jealous guy.

So, I am not convinced that the resulting simplistic plot – i.e. with “the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock The meat it feeds on” as the central pivot – with its core subtext removed, is actually enough to power the play on: especially one (like The Merchant of Venice…) where race is so crucial, and should leap from the stage. [Perhaps I was wrong, therefore, in my earlier review to write that Shylock’s casting doesn’t matter “as much as I had imagined”? But perhaps I was also right – in that it is the isolation, that “difference” – that ‘othering’ – which is crucial; and which is so manifestly apparent in that other RSC production…? If all the dots in an Ishihara colour vision test are randomly shuffled, how are we to discern the pattern, the number, the conclusion, the answer that should (for most of us) leap from the page?]

The race of the title role is often seen as Shakespeare’s way of isolating the character, culturally as well as visually, from the Venetian nobles and officers, and the isolation may seem more genuine when a black actor takes the role. But questions of race may not boil down to a simple decision of casting a single role.
– Wikipedia: Othello

This is only my opinion, of course; my reaction. But I left the theatre with such a strong, constant, nagging feeling: chewing away at my enjoyment – and it needed answering. What was missing? Why was I not engaged as much as I had expected? Why wasn’t I moved…? It wasn’t the acting; or the stage design – both of which were excellent (see below) – …so what was it?

Once home: reading the listing of “previous performances of Othello” at the RSC, in the programme, suddenly brought to mind Patrick Stewart and Jude Kelly’s struggle to mount a “photo‑negative” production: where Stewart played a white (not ‘bronzed’) Othello surrounded by black actors. (Oh, how I would love to have seen Ron Canada as Iago!) Is race really the drama’s principal theme, its main motivation? Discuss.

Perhaps it is a subset of my own “cultural references” that leads me to believe it is; that it is important…. It is difficult to break through the bounds of change, admittedly; and put ourselves in Shakespeare’s shoes: but, as Quarshie says, the play “was written by a white man 400 years ago for another white man in black face make-up”; and this must prove part of its problematic perspective.

Probably, therefore, I should just leave well alone, and just say that is for each member of the audience to decide: firstly, if they share my views; secondly, if they are capable of the suspension of belief that is fundamental both to Othello’s sudden conversion to apoplexy, and to his supposed otherness. All I can do is report my own response…. (And, yes, I know I moaned that previous performances of The Merchant of Venice had sometimes been too overtly racist; and now I’m implying that the race in this performance of Othello was too downplayed. But such is life.) “The play’s the thing” – and it’s on until 28 August 2015: so you have a couple of weeks in which to go and make up your own mind…!

Okay: so some brief production specifics. (Phew.)

The set and lighting design is by Ciaran Bagnall – and is incredibly clever: especially in its use of water, and eking every single square inch of space out of the thrust stage and its retreat under the old proscenium arch. The atmospheric music – which I found a little intrusive, at times: masking the speech (in my dull ears) – is written and directed by Akintayo Akinbode. The confusingly-contemporary (or are they?) costumes are by Fotini Dimou. And the whole shebang is directed by Iqbal Khan.

The cast overlaps largely, apart from the three lead characters (Quarshie, who never really seemed to get into his stride; newcomer Joanna Vanderham as a potent Desdemona; and the startlingly engaging and dominant Lucian Msamati as Iago), with The Merchant of Venice – appropriately: given, as Gregory Doran writes in the programme introduction, “We have taken Venice as our starting point for the season”.

Did we really need the laptops (although the almost-slapstick aerial-placement scene was very funny…); the television; Iago’s overwrought mysophobia (aping Lady Macbeth’s breakdown); the rap battle; the (extremely haunting) Zimbabwean song; the waterboarding (and other grisly tortures); Roderigo to look like he was gap-yearing in Cyprus…? I dunno. My feeling is that, shorn of such gimmickry (I know: here he goes again…), there is a gripping, tighter, more meaningful production trying to get out (and one that might not feel quite so slow, so episodic, so fractured…).

The performance of the night was, for me, Ayesha Dharker, as Emilia: who grew in reality and emotion as the evening progressed, reaching her zenith on discovering Desdemona’s body and realizing her husband’s treachery: “Speak, for my heart is full.” Sadly, mine wasn’t….

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