Royal Shakespeare Theatre
"He tires betimes who spurs too fast betimes," reckoned John of Gaunt. No-one could accuse the RSC of making a racing start to the Complete Works festival with their inaugural production of Romeo and Juliet but, after a fine Antony and Cleopatra at the Swan, the pace picks up with a fascinating and beautifully performed 'adaptation' of Othello by the Munchner Kammerspiele.
'Adaptation' because director Luk Perceval uses a script by Turkish-German writer Feridun Zeimoglu which remains faithful to the story Shakespeare gives us, but which holds only passing acquaintance with Shakespeare's language.
Gone is the poetry of Othello, whose rich imagery embodies his own self-conception ("Put up your bright swords for the dew will rust them"). In its place is a heightened prose which is quickly untuned once the poison of Iago begins to work. Those of a sensitive disposition should be warned that Iago's every utterance almost is peppered with profanities and obscenities. Thus, "Desdemona will soon fuck him over" and "Cassio is led around by his dick".
Perceval has also performed major surgery on the dramatis personae, cutting the cast to seven and augmenting them with a 'jazz' pianist who performs, centre stage, virtually throughout. Seeing Shakespeare performed in another language often has the virtue of making what is familiar, fresh again and this production has a fierce urgency and achieves a terrible contrast between the pathos of the love of Othello and Desdemona and the coarseness, cynicism, and brutality of their society which makes them seem doomed from the start.
Othello and Desdemona are clearly infatuated with one another and both the tenderness and the physicality of their love are beautifully brought out by Thomas Thieme as Othello, best known here for his role as Martin Bormann in Downfall, and Julia Jentsch. After Desdemona walks barefoot into the aftermath of the brawl between Cassio and Roderigo, broken glass underfoot, she steps on to Othello's shoes who then walks her back to the bedroom. In another scene she repeatedly butts him in the stomach "like a lovesick calf".
The action takes place in a severely underlit and funereal blackness, two lights on the back wall suggesting high windows in a prison-like interior. A dark, grand piano mounted on a small white podium is lit by a single spotlight. All the cast save Desdemona are also dressed in black evening dress attire. Some scenes pass with no pretence at interaction. Rather the performance can resemble a series of arias, an impression enforced by the accompaniment.
This embraces a wide range of styles, from Debbusy-esque tinklings to the staccato chords of Psycho and furious drumming of the piano by composer and pianist Jens Thomas accompanied by low guttural moans. If this sounds as though it could irritate (it doesn't) or overwhelm the action, it seldom does.
After a drawn-out Beckett-like opening in which Brabantio slowly undresses and folds his clothes only to dress again once Cassio and Roderigo have raised a hue and cry, the tempo quickens and the play builds a terrible momentum, clocking in at two hours without a break. The performances are excellent with Wolfgang Pregler especially outstanding as an all too plausible Iago, so foul-mouthed and cynical as to be almost above suspicion of skullduggery.
As indicated already, Othello, unusually, is played by a white actor but there is no attempt to suggest he is otherwise. The only black actor is Sheri Hagen who plays Iago's wife, Emilia. In a commentary on his approach to the play in the programme notes, Perceval states that he intended Hagen to act as a mute witness, a visible reproach of the racism being acted out on stage.
The production strongly suggests the realpolitik at work in this Venice which is deeply cynical, explicitly condones torture and which only tolerates Othello because of his ability. When Brabantio arrives with news of Othello's recall from Cyprus, he darkly hints at a putsch, "clean sweep", by "young radicals".
A terrific night of theatre then and one which richly deserves to be seen by bigger audiences than were present at the press night. My only regret is the loss of the richness of Shakespeare's language which coarsens both Othello and Desdemona and diminishes the tragedy of their destruction and death.
Academics often talk of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays without reference to Othello which for me is the biggest problem play of them all. The destruction wrought by Iago because of what Coleridge defined as "motiveless malignity" makes this one of the most affecting, almost unbearable, of Shakepeare's plays. This production bodies forth this tragedy with terrible power and clarity.
Reviewer: Pete Wood