Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: (Montreal) Othello

Andrew Moodie, Amanda Lisman (photo by Andrée Lanthier)

Stabbing at the Air
by Caitlin Murphy

I’ve always loved Othello. It’s always struck me as Shakespeare’s most accessible play somehow. I like the scale of its plot (essentially a disgruntled employee’s sick ploy to get back at his boss) and the depth of its interest in human psychology (essentially how the mind is able to cannibalize itself). 

In the Artistic Producer’s notes for the Segal Centre/Scapegoat Carnivale’s co-production of Othello, we learn that this is only the third time the Segal has done Shakespeare. And though that is indeed surprising, given this is the Segal’s 47th year, perhaps it’s because the quick rehearsal process imposed by main stage productions can only serve Shakespeare ‘too little, not too well’.

What time is most needed for, of course, the greatest challenge in performing Shakespeare (and usually the first casualty) is the poetry and language. Directed by Alison Darcy, the company here has varying degrees of success with breathing life into their text. Daniel Brochu is lovely and believable as Cassio; Julie Tamiko-Manning is effectively subdued as Iago’s long suffering wife Emilia, and, after a bumpy beginning, Sean Arbuckle as Iago grew clearer and more compelling with each passing scene.  

At times though, to quote Desdemona, we were left understanding a fury in the company’s words but not their words. Indications of emotion – a hand to the mouth in a gasp of surprise, a thump to the chest in a display of pride, wringing of hands in a show of fretting – did little  to communicate specific thought or intent. Perhaps not completely trusting their understanding of the language or ability to transmit it, actors leaned too heavily on actor-ly crutches like volume and gesticulation, at times descending the piece into awkward pantomime.   

Scapegoat Carnivale’s company program note, though full of great ideas about the play, reads as a hodgepodge – something about water… something about the importance of the female protagonists… something about secrets and curiosity cabinets… It also comes across as an after-thought defence of some otherwise confusing production choices (like the water that streamed down the stage at play’s climax, for instance). Absent is a clear indication of the company’s specific interest in the play, in particular its ‘take’ on its story, or goal in telling it.  

Though we tend to focus on the character of Othello’s outsider status as a black man, he is also notably a general, a commander, a passionate man who earned a beautiful woman’s love through exciting tales of ‘dangers he had passed.’ In the role, Andrew Moodie is simply unable to convey the stature or muster the gravitas. Indeed much of Moodie’s delivery landed oddly in an “OMG/WTF”, sing-songy kind of cadence that undermined the seriousness of Othello’s plight. The chemistry between Othello and Desdemona, likely as a result, also lacked mature passion – their bond felt more like that of a couple of teenagers who’ve discovered they like each other.   

Iago’s greatest gift is his ability to worm his way into Othello’s head and hijack his thoughts.  
To see the workings of his plot, we need to actually see Othello thinking, his mind unravelling, despite himself, like a sweater whose loose thread Iago keeps tugging at. The tragedy of Othello is in our recognition that thought spirals, especially ones fuelled by jealousy, work like quicksand or Chinese handcuffs – the more you fight ‘em, the worse they’re gonna get. Moodie’s performance failed to convince me that I was watching a man in the process of becoming undone. And without this, Desdemona’s brutal murder, and the awful collateral damage that ensues, can’t possibly resonate. In short, you can’t do Othello without an Othello.

The sprawling stage design, though a beautiful blank canvas, didn’t do much to serve a play so much about intimacy and betrayal. Much of the staging created such great expanses between characters that the stakes felt muted, the dangers distant, and characters left – rather like the production  – stabbing at the air.

Runs Nov. 17 - Dec. 1

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