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Othello

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Review of 2019 Stratford Festival Production

With the usual pomp and circumstance, blaring trumpets and red carpet for the elite, the Stratford Festival opened officially with a production of Othello. Nigel Shawn Williams directs a fine production with a superb cast that results in an outstanding night at the theatre.

The production has the fundamental requirement for staging Othello which is talented actors to fill the roles of Iago, Othello and Desdemona. The diabolical Iago is a more interesting and difficult character and gets top billing over the other two main roles. Gordon S. Miller gives a brilliant performance as an Iago who is subtle, manipulative, abusive and absolutely evil but is able to operate beneath a veneer of honesty, obedience as a subordinate officer, and friend. We see all these characteristic in Miller’s performance and get a picture of the terrifying monster.

Michael Blake is a highly effective Othello. We first see the officer and gentleman, self-assured and commanding. He faces the accusations and insults of using magic to attract Desdemona with equanimity and poise. We watch with riveted attention as Iago’s poison begins to take effect until all of his fine qualities disappear and Othello becomes a veritable monster.

In the exceptionally moving last scene, we see Othello regain his stature and dignity, and come to the realization that by killing Desdemona he threw away the richest pearl. But Othello is much more than a lover and husband. He also recalls his defence of Christianity in Aleppo when he slashed the throat of a turbaned Turk. A marvelous performance by Blake as we see all the facets of the Moor.

Amelia Sargisson is a beautiful Desdemona and a woman in love. She has the strength to choose between duty to father and loyalty to husband and be happy in her choice. She is playful and loving until the reality of Othello’s unthinkable jealousy dawns on her. Her murder is well staged and Sargisson’s Desdemona is remarkable for her poise, her passion, her innocence and her tragic end.

The lesser roles are done well. Johnathan Sousa’s Cassio is an ordinary officer, too weak to command or control his drinking. Roderigo (Farhand Ghajar) is an infatuated fool reaching for Desdemona. Michelle Giroux plays the Duchess of Venice, a modern woman who knows her job. Shruti Kothari is a spirited Bianca making a living the hard way.

Williams gives the play a modern setting with most of the characters wearing the same army fatigues. As far as I could see at the start, there were no insignia to indicate different ranks. Then I noted small patches on the chest to differentiate the officers. In a play where rank is of the utmost importance, more attention should have been paid to the uniforms and insignia.

We have a general and an ensign who have won glory in many battles but there are no decorations whatever on their chests to indicate that. The uniform means something because when Othello crosses the line from dignified general to insanely jealous husband he is without his army jacket. Iago’s wife Emilia (an excellent Laura Condlin) is also in uniform (officer, soldier?) and solves the problem, I guess, of Desdemona having a servant in the 21st century.

The set by designer Denyse Karn consists of a beige backdrop with several doors. Karn also designs the projections which together with the work of Lighting Designer Kaileigh Krysztoifiak provide a rich variety of backgrounds. This includes the indication of streets and buildings as well as surging sea waves and nightmarish images. Highly effective work. The only props Othello requires are a bed and a bench.

Williams adds an opening scene to the play. When the lights go on we see two men and a woman at the right edge of the stage. In the centre of the stage we see about a dozen men dressed in black who do a brief dance routine to a few very bars of loud, throbbing rock music. The men and woman are Othello and Desdemona getting married by a priest. Are the ghouls supposed to be a quickie, unscripted omen of things to come?

A strong and highly worthy beginning to the new season.

Othello by William Shakespeare opened on May 27 and will play in repertory until October 27, 2019 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.