[Not so much a review as a blow-by-blow account running to 2,000 words. As such, there are a fair few staging spoilers. In my defence, it’s on in Berlin, and this is an English Language review for what I still consider to be a British-based blog. As such, this review is mostly aimed at people who don’t think they’re ever going to get to see it.]
Okay, there are two headlines to choose from here: 1) I’ve just seen the best production of Othello I’ve ever seen. 2) I’ve just seen a production of Othello in which Othello is played by a white woman in a gorilla costume.
My job, then, is to explain how (2) manages to be (1). Perhaps unfairly I’m anticipating a certain amount of scepticism.
Actually, there’s a third headline. Well, it’s more of a question really: When was the last time you sat waiting for a production of Shakespeare to start with a genuine sense of anticipation about what you were going to see? Like: you really had no idea what was going to happen on stage – how they were going to do it...
Director Jette Steckel’s (2009- premiered) Othello opens with a bloke in a white shirt and black trousers standing up in the middle of the audience (the DT’s Kammerspiele space is a small/medium sized hall with a smallish pros. arch stage – think the Royal Court Downstairs stage at the end of a smaller version of one of the halls in Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms) with a small video-camera. What it sees is projected onto the flat, black wall at the front of the stage. He focuses the camera onto a female couple snogging in the front row. The frame freezes. Another white-shirted figure stands. Iago (Jago - Ole Lagerpusch) and hails the cameraman. Gradually other characters stand in the audience as their characters are called on to speak. It is striking how beautifully blocked it is. Perfect “staging” even without a stage.
As the opening scene disperses, the actors mount the stage and exit through a door in the black wall at the front of the stage, their character’s name projected, scribbled on the wall. A kind of rough-mixture of Brecht and Tarantino.
Othello is played by Susanne Wolff – a white woman – wearing the same white shirt/black trousers as the other players. What’s most striking is how little this feels like a problem. Meike Droste’s Desdemona is sweet and boyish. Iago is unusually cute for an Iago – looking more like the sort of actor you might expect to see playing the good-looking best friend in anything from Romeo and Juliet to The OC. Desdemona’s father, Brabantio (Helmut Mooshammer) – standing right in front of me in the audience – is also really rather fine; dignified, slightly crumpled and obviously angry, but most crucially, actually like a person. Properly *live* and *a*live, somehow.
Then a storm destroys the Turkish fleet which was going to attack Cyprus. This is created by a bloke blowing into a microphone attached to a delay pedal, while fuzzy footage of the audience projected again onto the black wall at the front of the stage serves as the stormy sea. It should be emphasised that the bloke-with-mic. is stupidly good at doing waves, winds, the crack of timber and the destruction of a fleet at sea. That you get to watch this soundscape created from scratch and then swell and becoming impossibly evocative is all the more exciting.
At the height of the storm, the back wall crashes backwards creating a jaggedly raked stage jutting back into the dark undecorated stage dock (Bühne: Florian Lösche).
From here on in, much of the “action” is reasonably standard. After all, it is still Othello. People need to say the lines to each other. What is special here is the way in which the lines are delivered. Which is to say, there was notably little *acting* going on. Iago wasn’t “evil”. Desdemona wasn’t wet, flat, insipid and/or caricatured as she often seems to be. And Othello wasn’t black or male. Nor was he *Black* or *Male*. It’s a tricky one to explain. The three leads – all excellent – play their parts with a real intelligence and sensitivity to what their characters are doing, thinking, feeling. And yet it’s somehow not *psychological* acting, per se. Their emotions are readable, but not laboured. There’s an intensely watchable matter-of-factness about it. At the same time clearly there’s control and intelligence.
That said, while they do “get on and do the play” there are still some lovely directorial touches. A sequence involving a messenger deploys bloke-with-mic to provide the sound effects to a possibly overdone, but still fun, mime sequence involving cars, horses, a squelching swamp and the opening and closing of many squeaky doors. Elsewhere, during his early scene with Cassio, where he lays his plot, Iago performs a kind of “masque of blackness” the waves bloke-with-mic returns to beatbox while Iago pastiches a number of classic “black” dance music tropes: Michael Jackson, Shabba Ranks, MC Hammer, etc. It’s not especially clear if Iago is being deliberately crass and/or racist, or just mucking about, but it adds a frisson. The sense of Othello’s Otherness being at once conjured, marked-out and disliked. Even while the actual Othello we have so far seen is as deliberately far from “Black” and “Male” as it’s possible to be.
As the play continues, we start to see the character of Othello being further explored, or rather exploded, or deconstructed. The stage lends itself to this sort of treatment. The long black rake of the fallen wall causes the performers to treat carefully across the criss-crossed grid of the construction (see photos). The fact it is at once its concrete self and an abstract space facilitates the other disjuncture: that between performer and character.
The costumes are for the most part effortlessly contemporary. Think Reiss and All Saints, nice casual suits for the blokes and a particularly nice chunky knitted jumper/dress for Desdemona, who also wanders about in oversize t-shirts and boots looking like an appealing indie girl with short hair circa Reading ’93.
The gorilla costume makes its first appearance with Desdemona pissing about wearing just the head (early production shots suggest the full costume, this is no longer the case), at first on her own and then in the scene with Cassio, who at one stage also puts on the mask.
It’s a affectionate, funny and troubling all at once, and gives a new edge to what Othello thinks he is seeing. His new wife is wandering around in this gorilla mask, making fun with it, and in the company of another man. With no foreknowledge of what’s to come, it sounds more than a little racist to immediately associate a gorilla costume with Black masculinity. But here there is no doubt that old racist trope which is being intentionally conjured and played with.
Steckel’s approach is arresting – and not only because it makes this white Englishman squirm, being about as far as is possible from the ways in which we choose to examine racism in Britain. There’s a fair part of me that did just keep thinking “Can you do that?”, as regards the casting of a white person as Othello, and again when one learns that there’s a gorilla costume involved.
The full costume is deployed at the moment when Othello thinks he’s learnt of Desdemona’s infidelity. As a symbol of, well, it’s very much in the eye of the beholder, but it’s such a loaded bit of symbolism it seems to clearly suggest an “animal rage” which no one else in the play displays. And to associate that rage with a particular animal. And a particular animal which has a history of being used as a racist symbol. Which is an uncomfortable thing to put on stage. Even though here it is very clearly as much a comment on the play’s, of Shakespeare’s construction of a “Black man” (although, yes, it’s the director’s decision to apparently take “Moor” as a licence for “Afro-Caribbean” than what is historically more likely to intend North African).
It’s incredibly disturbing. I mean properly, electrically uncomfortable. Because as ways of pissing about representing race on stage go it’s pretty full on. It’s confronting the audience with a question about how “Black” characters are constructed by white writers in the baldest imaginable terms.
Thanks to the rest of the deconstructed staging, the image works perfectly. Indeed, beyond the signification of questions about race, it is actually, curiously, enormously touching. The gorilla costume looks heartbroken, all the more touching for being momentarily deprived of language. I think it’s also important that we see Wolff put on the costume on stage and take it off again some minutes later also onstage. It entirely foregrounds the symbolism in its own constructedness (if that makes sense).
It also marks a fascinating contrast between the effect having both Othello and Desdemona played by women, which, thanks to these two particular performances, makes the relationship seem far more tender, playful and affectionate than I’ve ever seen before. Wolff, while not going out of her way to be gruff, or affecting an impression of “a black man”, does manage to convey a commentary of a certain masculinity.
It’s worth noting that immediately after Othello/Wolff takes off the gorilla costume and the other performers return to the rake for the scene in which Othello abuses Desdemona in front of her family they begin with Lodovico (Desdemona’s cousin, also played by Helmet Mooshammer (Brabantio)) handing out the German sweets which are still apparently popularly known as “negerkuss”. It’s a startlingly acute way of at once implying both Othello’s “outsider” status and really picking at German society’s apparent casual racism.
The next time we see Othello he’s dressed in a red dress and a long blonde wig.
He looks like another racist archetype – that of the idealised trophy white woman. I think this might be genius. At the very least it’s asking the audience to do some serious work on its own understandings of the constructedness of characters and how we think performers on stage *mean*. In this sequence, there’s an utterly charming moment where D. perches on O’s arm like a little bird. Actually, Desdemona does quite a lot of bird-related physical/movement work. It’s terribly sweet yet subtle enough not to feel like a Big Thing. Perhaps in stating it so baldly here it sounds like it might be a bit over-symbolic, but in the moment it comes across as wonderfully light and playful.
The plot carries on, nearing its inevitable tragic denouement. Desdemona comes in wearing a Clawfinger t-shirt for bed, bearing the backprint Deaf Bumb Blind. Othello comes in, Susanne Wolff returned to her own long brown hair and wearing a Public Enemy t-shirt* and does Desdemona in. Then does himself in too. Sarcastically. With one of those knives with bouncy retractable blades while a series of photographs of Wolff in various guises, black, white, male, female, young, old are projected against the back wall of the stage. Iago returns and makes short work of Emilia – a hand pressed to her face removed to reveal a bloodied mess. And it all abruptly ends, with a good deal less of the protracted speechifying and explaining than usually holds the end of the play up by about ten minutes.
In conclusion, this is at once a dizzyingly intricate intellectual take on the play, and at the same time, one which displays a curiously conservative aesthetic – at least as far as German theatre goes. It always looks nice, and, in a strange way, aside from the intense questioning of racial politics, it doesn’t feel like theatre which is really seeking to turn the status quo on its head. At the same time, it reminded me more than anything I’ve seen since last August why I think theatre, when it’s working flat-out, is just brilliant. So, yes. If you get the chance, do go see it. Or badger the Barbican for a transfer.
* Interestingly, the T-shirts worn in the final scene by Desdemona and Othello actually form a dialogue of their own. Clawfinger are a ridiculous 90s Swedish rap-metal outfit (who are all white) and their album Deaf Dumb Blind opens with a track called “Nigger” in which the band lecture black people who use the N-word about why they shouldn’t do so, with apparently no irony whatsoever. That Othello wears a Public Enemy t-shirt while strangling Desdemona suddenly makes his actions seem almost reasonable given the circumstances :-)