The current Stratford Festival Othello is a conservatively staged production, with a virtually bare stage marked only by a metal walkway across the back. Furniture is kept to a minimum, with a few boxes sitting in as various benches and architectural features. Costumes are period, which will make purists happy, with occasional Moroccan and exotic flourishes. The staging, too, is minimal, leaving a prime opportunity for this production to highlight the play’s most important feature: the language.
Language in Othello is paramount. The plot hinges on it. Othello, expert at war and strategy, is brought down by language, but also woos Desdemona the same way, enticing her with his exotic tales and adventures. Cassio bemoans the loss of his reputation, or good name. Iago’s beef against Othello is based on a simple rumor, nothing more. Unfortunately, the Stratford production seems to ignore these matters in its race to the finish.
Philip Akin’s Othello is certainly dynamic and attractive, but his initial scenes have him speaking so quickly and fluently, his “rough of speech” passage is laughable. His tale of wooing Desdemona is lost, too, for instead of punctuating the beautiful exotic language and allowing the audience to be drawn to him, Akins runs through it like a grocery list he is anxious to dispatch. Jonathan Goad, on the other hand, presents us with an Iago who is rough and brutal, both physically and linguistically, so while he comes to life with intense brutality during his soliloquies, he is so reticent in his dealings with others that he seems more disengaged than disingenuous.
Although both actors improve in the second half, too often passion is translated into physical out bursts and shouting, again, at the expense of language. As Akins becomes wonderfully unhinged, so does his speech, though he would be more effective if he could convey madness with less sputtering. Goad has moments of sheer brilliance, as when he seethes with violence and loathing when he says he hates the Moor. Interestingly, Goad tends to come alive during the soliloquies, which is where Akins falters the most.
Claire Jullien disappoints as Desdemona, approaching the role with an odd sense of maternal restraint, which fails to convey the sense of naiveté and youthfulness required by the role. Instead, Jullien comes across as shrill and nagging, with a world-weary air. Unfortunately, this approach undermines the play as a whole, since without a prevailing sense of Desdemona’s innocence, the irony and tragedy of the play are lost entirely. It doesn’t help that the death scene is awkward and completely unbelievable, or that Jullien is victim to the only glaringly bizarre costume choices, including a terribly unflattering black sequined bubble hat, shapeless tunics and bustle skirts.
The production is bolstered by strong performances by Jeffrey Wetsch (Cassio) and Gordon S. Miller (Roderigo). Wetsch’s Cassio is dynamic and affable, and yet still carries off his drunken scene believably. Miller’s portrayal of Roderigo marks the only time I have ever seen the part developed into a three-dimensional character worthy of note. On the downside, Stephen Russell seems to be playing Brabantio as a feeble old man, but unfortunately ends up conveying boredom and disinterest instead. He treats the news of Desdemona’s elopement as a simple, frustrating inconvenience, rather like discovering he’s lost his house keys yet again. Lucy Peacock’s Emilia is brash, brazen and oddly uncomfortable on stage, until the final act when she finally exhibits some protective maternal emotion.
As a whole, this Othello is a conservative, by-the-book production, fairly typical of director David Latham’s other Stratford work (Cymbeline, Timon of Athens). The staging is oversimplified, and the metal walkway at the back underutilized. Latham also has a penchant for the tableau at the expense of storytelling, most notably in the death scene, where both Othello and Emilia have to negotiate their way awkwardly into position and lose the dramatic power of their deaths as a result.
This is an oddly dispassionate Othello, and at just under three hours, one of the fastest I’ve ever seen. There is hope that by late July or early August this show might settle into a moderately decent, albeit basic production, but at the moment, this is a notably unremarkable piece of theatre.