Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams
Scenic design and digital projection design by Denyse Karn
Lighting by Kalleigh Krysztofiak
Sound design with original composition by Verne Good
Featuring: Michael Blake, Juan Chioran, David Collins, Laura Condlln, Farhang Ghajar, Michelle Giroux, Emma Grabisnky, Randy Hughson, John Kirkpatrick, Shruti Kothari, Daniel Krmpotic, Josue Laboucane, Jamie Mac, Hilary McCormack, Gordon S. Miller, Amelia Sargisson, E.B. Smith, Johnathan Sousa, Michael Spencer-Davis, Brigit Wilson
This production of Othello at the Stratford Festival is a benchmark of sorts as it marks the first time a black Canadian actor has ever played the role on the Festival’s main stage. The first black Canadian actor ever to play the role at Stratford was in 2007 when Philip Aiken as Othello and Jonathan Goad as Iago were cast in a very strong production that played in the Tom Patterson Theatre (currently closed while undergoing reconstruction). This current production is further distinguished because it also marks the first time a black artist – Nigel Shawn Williams – has been hired to direct Shakespeare on the main Festival stage.
It is worthwhile noting these things because one cannot fully put the play’s performance history – not to mention the meaning of the play itself – into its proper context unless you do. Beyond the theme of jealousy and a crime of passion, Shakespeare’s Othello remains a barometer of sorts as to how our theatre has evolved with regard to providing opportunities for racialized minorities in general when it comes to casting classical roles.
Both the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival were slow to reflect Canada’s multiracial reality by remaining virtually all white repertory companies until well into the 1980s (this would be way before the days of hashtag Stratford-and-Shaw-Festival-so-white type campaigns). It was not until 1987 that John Neville cast the first black actor (the American film star, Howard Rollins) in the role of Othello. And it is not only classical theatre companies. When the Metropolitan Opera announced that their 2015-16 season would go forward with Aleksandrs Antonenko in the role of Otello in Verdi’s opera, cultural reporter Alison Kinney took one look at the ad campaign and said that the pale Latvian tenor looked “as though he had a bronzer malfunction.” The Met initially took the position that singers had blacked up to sing the role since their founding in 1891, as if the tradition was something to be proud of. They quickly backpedalled on that one and announced that from here on in at the Met, white actors would no longer use make up to darken their skin when playing Otello.
It didn’t take social media long to push back again by pointing out to the Met that what they ought to be doing is affirmatively seeking out black tenors to sing the role as the Canadian Opera Company did so successfully this season when they cast the magnificent Russell Thomas to sing Otello.
And if you think this is just another example of today’s political correctness run amok, think again. As far back as the early decades of the 19th century, the famous African American actor, Ira Aldridge, was initially pilloried by the London critics for having the chutzpa to think that he could bring a deeper truth and authenticity to the role of Othello because he was of African descent. Bernth Lindfors, in his four volume biography of Aldridge, notes that one critic (writing in 1839!) could only rationalize the “considerable power” that Aldridge brought to his portrayal of the Moor by concluding, “if he be a Negro, as we are told, he is certainly a remarkable exception to the race, in regard to intellect. We rather think that there must be some white blood in his veins.”
And so now here we are at the Stratford Festival in 2019 with both a black Canadian actor in the role of Othello and a black director working on the Festival’s main stage for the first time. Does this add deeper insight into the play? It most certainly does, from the very beginning to the very powerful end of the play. It’s not a perfect production (set here in the present day and in modern dress) but there are elements within it that are remarkably insightful and brilliant in execution.
First off is a bit of silent backstory slyly inserted into the play’s opening moments by director Nigel Shawn Williams in which we see Othello (Michael Blake) and his bride Desdemona (Amelia Sargisson) being wed in a simple ceremony. It is this singular act of volition – without her father’s consent – that sets off Brabantio’s racist rant in the Venetian senate against Othello.
Randy Hughes (as Brabantio) seems to be type cast as the in-house racist character within the company at Stratford having gone from the lumpen southern red-neck, Bob Ewell, in last season’s production of To Kill A Mockingbird (also directed by Williams), to this year’s frothing senator who is convinced that his daughter must have been drugged by a black man in order for her to have consented to marry him. Hughes is a fine actor but he seemed almost defeated at times when, during his longer speeches, he turned his back to one side of the audience to address the opposite side of the house in what is sometimes an acoustically unforgiving thrust stage. Wide swaths of his words were unintelligible.
A similar problem occurred with a miscast Gordon S. Miller as Iago who seemed to think that he could overcome the problem simply by waving his hands and shouting his lines throughout. It took an underused Juan Chioran as Lodovico to step up and remind us how a properly trained Shakespearean actor can articulate every syllable of the language and be heard distinctly in every seat of the house. By the end of the first act I was concerned enough to think that perhaps the production had gone seriously off the rails and that there was no retrieving it.
Then a miraculous thing happened, as it always does with the plays of William Shakespeare. After four hundred years, the works of the Bard remain actor proof, director proof and critic proof. That is, from the most humble stages of the world to the most well endowed cathedrals of theatrical art, if you hang in and weather an awkward patch here and there, the plays will always win out.
At the top of the second act, the pacing picks up and the tragic events and miscues that signal the inevitable conclusion begin to pull us in. Also, we see that the concept behind Nigel Shawn Williams setting the play in a modern day military conflict was not just a gimmick but an integral part of the story. He updated (and promoted) the role of Emilia (Laura Condlin) from demure maidservant to that of Desdemona’s aide-de-camp in charge of her security during the Cyprus campaign. Gradually and unrelentingly the play combines its themes of racialism and jealously with a pulsating overlay of sexism and misogyny with Emilia leading the charge of revenge.
I’ve watched this play many times over the years, and have always felt that the final scene between Desdemona and Emilia in the bedchamber is much stronger and angrier on the page than it is traditionally acted on the stage. Not in this production. Here Emilia is a trained military officer and one who has suffered herself in a bad relationship with her husband, Iago. Her anger is released in a torrent and her warnings to men take on a strident, cautionary challenge that their abuse will not go unavenged. At the end of the play, when her sisters in arms discover the bodies of the slain Emilia and Desdemona side by side with the suicided Othello, the effect is heart breaking. The women soldiers kneel and silently bow their heads in a final moment of respect as the lights fade to black.
The curtain call itself was remarkable in that never in my life have I heard such a roar of approbation for the actor playing Emilia! Clearly a nerve had been struck with Laura Condlin’s forceful portrayal and reinterpretation of the role and Nigel Shawn Williams is to be congratulated for pulling it all together. My only disappointment at this point is in noting that the Festival Theatre was 2/3 empty on a Friday weekend performance. This show really deserves packed houses every night. So, get the word out folks, this is a must see production.