When you first learn about Shakespeare, you are told that there are three types of plays – comedies, tragedies and histories. And you can tell which plays are tragedies because they involve one or more deaths. But I would argue that there are subgroups within the tragedy heading – the political and the personal. The political tragedy would be one where opposing forces kill for political gain. Think Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear. The story of Othello does not fit this mold because it is a deeply personal tragedy. There may be surrounding political machinations, but the driving force for all the malice involved is because of poisoned personal relationships, and while there may be a transferring of power at the end of the play, it is a side effect and not an intended consequence.
The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington is currently putting on Othello, and while I saw a version with Sir Patrick Stewart in 1997 that hoped to put a new twist and meaning on the tragedy, this time it is played again with a non-traditional Othello. This time, he is still a “Moor” in that he comes from the lands to the south and surrounding of Europe, but instead of a black man, he is an Arab Muslim (a group that is historically a foundational part of the Moors). And with so much Islamophobia happening in America right now, perhaps we need to see and confront how we are “othering” anyone who is not white in this country.
It helps with this production that the two male leads are amazing. Faran Tahir is Othello, and he is amazing. At the beginning you can tell that he is the strong but kind general, and you can see why any woman would be attracted to him. He is engaging and attractive, but over the course of his psychological manipulation by Iago, we see him descend. He becomes a single-minded beast who is consumed by jealousy. Tahir does a magnificent job with this change as it is appropriately gradual over the course of the play, and culminating in his seizure and soon followed by a quietly intense scene where he smothers his wife.
The other standout here is Jonno Roberts, who is amazing as the two-faced puppetmaster – destroying the lives of those who he believes wronged him, along with any innocent bystanders who stand in his way. He is responsible for the deaths of four people in this play, even though he himself only kills two. Roberts’s Iago is all soldierly duty and comradery when Othello is around, but as soon as he is alone, or with his lower-level co-conspirator, he is deadly and fierce in his hate. It is chilling to watch.
The rest of the cast is decent, but not as standout as the two leads. Luckily, the setting and costumes lend an air of authority to the production. The stage itself is minimalist, with the theater itself stripped to it’s edges in a way that evokes a raw and war-torn place. With the costumes, we see that this is World War I, and Othello the Venetian General having been asked to combat the Turkish army makes perfect historical sense. The costumes are all amazing and precise, and it’s even more interesting to see how as Othello becomes more consumed by jealousy that he goes back to the way he would have dressed if he had not become a Christian, had not embraced the Venetian lifestyle. It is a slow and subtle change, but one that speaks volumes to the characters thoughts and intentions.
As a note – this is an intense play. Very good, but the emotional roller coaster is real, and the domestic tragedy is palpable. This is not the kind of “fun” theater that you would take a child to in order to introduce them to the works of William Shakespeare. And yet when we sat down, The Boy and I spotted an adult shepherding three children (looking to be ages 8, 11 and 14 or so), and we goggled. Why on earth would you bring ANYONE under the age of 8 to see Othello? Not that children should be shielded from these things, but as one of those personal tragedies that I mentioned in the first paragraph, I really can’t see it being “fun” or “interesting” for anyone with a child’s attention span. Why pick this show when there’s a perfectly fun production of a more engaging (for children at the very least) show happening right across town?
This led to The Boy and I having a discussion – would he bring his girls? The answer was no – at least not to this show. If you’re trying to inspire a love of Shakespeare, he would probably bring H, who is a little older and more able to take in and understand what’s going on. And as a first production, a comedy would be infinitely more appealing than this brutal production. What do you all think? Would you take a child to see Othello? How young is too young? If not Othello…which show? I’m curious to hear what you’ve got to say.
Details: “Othello” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2 hours 4o minutes with an intermission. Through March 27.