(Not that you shouldn’t expect spoilers for a review of a play that’s over 300 years old.)
Last Friday, Donald and I went to see the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s free performance of Othello. Every year the company stages a free outdoor performance of a Shakespeare play on the Boston Common. It’s a fun thing to go and see if you live around here; the show starts at 8 pm, but a lot of people show up early with picnic blankets to stake out a good spot. Which is what we did.
I found the play enjoyable but not outstanding. I’d never seen a performance of Othello, nor read the play, so even though I was familiar with the plot, it was interesting for me to see how it played out. I thought all the performances were fine, but not outstanding. Iago kept stuttering on his lines, and I suppose it may have been deliberate, to add verisimilitude to his character (who would mistrust someone who can’t quite get the words out right, after all?), but if so, that was too subtle for me. I also couldn’t tell when the play was supposed to be set. WWI or WWII, perhaps? People were definitely wearing early 20th century garb, and using revolvers. I’m not a huge fan of Shakespearean plays being set in eras other than either the Elizabethan, or else whatever historical period the Bard was trying to invoke, but that’s a topic for another post. Regardless of my feelings on the matter, it does seem that I should at least be able to tell when the play is supposed to be taking place, whatever era the director chooses!
I was struck by the sense that Othello is one of those plays that probably doesn’t work quite the same way for a modern audience as it did in Shakespeare’s day. In one sense, the subject of interracial marriage does seem quite modern, especially when you realize when it was written. The racist comments voiced by some of Othello’s enemies made me cringe; but, really, it’s not as if similar and equally offensive comments aren’t still being made today. Though I suspect that a theater audience today reacts differently to those comments than one in 16th/17th century England.
The big issue that I found it hard to get past, though, was the idea that the play’s tragedy hinges on the fact that the wife Othello murdered for cheating on him was, in fact, innocent. Tied up in that is the assumption that it would somehow be more okay for him to murder his wife if he really had cheated on her. I’m not a scholar of the Elizabethan period, but I suspect that this is probably a mirror of the attitudes of the day. It means that I can’t really watch the play in the same way that a contemporary of Shakespeare would, though. I felt similarly upon seeing the Boston Common production of The Taming of the Shrew a few years back. Message: If your wife’s a bitch, the path to domestic harmony involves showing her who’s boss, even if you need to slap her around a little. The production I saw tried to play up the potential S&M kink aspect of this, but it still made me cringe.
I would never suggest that companies avoid producing historical plays with controversial or even offensive content, or that they should attempt to expurgate that content in any way. Different cultures have a different sense of what’s offensive and what isn’t, and who are we to think that we’re the final judges (the Victorians tried to downplay the bawdiness in many of Shakespeare’s plays; now they usually play it up for all it’s worth)? And it can be a useful guide to reflection, to see plays written out of a moral center that’s shifted in some ways from ours. It’s just interesting, because sometimes the assumptions about appropriate morality and culture really underpin the whole sense of the play.
I’ve been thinking a little about how this applies to writing. I write a lot of fantasy fiction set in imaginary pre-Industrial cultures. It’s probably a little implausible to give all my characters 21st century North American ethics. And yet, to some extent, you sort of have to. I think if you get too close to how people in a culture so vastly different from your own would actually think, you run a real risk of alienating the reader through their inability to empathize with the protagonist. So, in a sense, you have to fake it. The question is always: how much? Too much faking, and the world you’ve created feels like a narrow utopia, mirroring the values of liberal, secular 21st century urbanites (or whomever you think your audience is). Either that, or you take the morality play approach, where the noble (feminist, non-racist and gay-friendly) protagonists are oppressed by the brutal system around them. Too little faking, and your audience will have a really hard time empathizing with the characters who just don’t think like them. (On a tangent from my original tangent, I think this latter issue has a lot to do with the problems modern folk encounter when reading the Bible; if you expect the Apostle Paul to write like a son of postmodernism who’s familiar with feminism and queer theory, you’re probably going to be disappointed; if you compare him to his contemporaries, it’s a little different.)
But, back to Othello. One aspect of the performance that made the disconnect of which I was speaking (i.e., is it ever okay to murder your wife?) more intense for me was that Othello’s descent into suspicion and engraged jealousy felt too sudden. It’s possible that the suddenness is there in the text (and if so, perhaps the audience of Shakespeare’s day expected a Moor to be more prone to sudden, violent, posssessive rage than an Englishman; which gets back to the racism issue). But a play is far more than just the words on the page. It seemed that it would have been possible to foreshadow this more strongly in the early scenes, where everything seems to be going so smoothly between Othello and Desdemona, at least through acting and staging choices, if it’s not in the text.
I do have to say that the murder scene was done well. It’s pretty disturbing, and goes on long enough to make the audience start to feel really uncomfortable (like the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, a movie I have no desire to see more than once, even though it’s brilliant). The acting was good, but I wasn’t blown away by any of the performances. A friend told me that a really good Iago is key to an Othello production that works, and I’m not sure this one was quite good enough. I think a really good Othello must also be important though. I ended up feeling that the murder was inconsistent with the character I had been shown in the early scenes of the play.
But enough of the play! You’re no doubt dying to hear about what we ate for our picnic! I thought so. Well, I picked up a nice, ripe wedge of Brie de Meaux from Russo’s, along with a baguette, some fresh black currants and wild blueberries, and a bottle of sparkling lemonade. I had some pistachios lying around from a snack purchase for a previous outing. The Brie was lovely, though I think Donald prefers harder and milder cheeses. The black currants were quite nice, but honestly, the wild blueberries were a bit of a disappointment. They got pretty smushed, I don’t know whether it was between the grocery store and my house, or my house and the Boston Common, but it was difficult to find many berries worth eating. And they’d been expensive, too!
We had perfect weather: high of 80 degrees, low humidity, sunny skies. Actually, the thing that was not so perfect about it was that it got quite chilly after sunset. I’d worn a long skirt, short sleeves, and sandals, and I was too cold even with my woolen shawl that I brought. (Of course, being a Boston summer, the heat and humidity are both back up this week.)
Here are a few pictures of the outing: