David Oyelowo and Daniel
Craig photos by Chad
By Ron Cohen
director Sam Gold and cohorts take on William Shakespeare’s Othello with
no holds barred in this hotly anticipated New York Theatre Workshop production.
It’s a good, sometimes violent tussle, but the two who emerge indisputably
victorious from this three-hour-plus fray are the stars, Daniel Craig and David
Oyelowo, delivering galvanizing performances of Olympian proportions.
celebrated British actor who recently appeared as Martin Luther King Jr. in the
film Selma, takes on the title role, a Moorish general in the Venetian
army undone by unfounded jealousy and doubts about the fidelity of his adored
wife, the fair Desdemona.
head-spinning career has taken him from Pinter on Broadway to James Bond in the
flicks, metamorphizes once again as Iago, the deceitful ensign who ignites
Venetian army occupying Cyprus, Gold has transported the story to a modern-day
military installation, with such accoutrements as cell phones and AK rifles. It
is not a new twist for this oft-reinterpreted masterpiece, but it’s done with
such ferocity that you can almost smell the solider sweat in the unkempt,
apparently temporary barracks in Andrew Lieberman’s set design.
walls have been covered in unfinished lumber, the same material used for the
four rows of bleachers that line three sides of the playing area. In the show’s
first half, mattresses, as army cots, are sprawled across the floor.
In the second
half, most of the mattresses have disappeared, and only one neatly made up bed
remains as a centerpiece. This, of course, is the bed on which Desdemona will
meet her doom – as she always does -- at the strangling hands of her husband.
For a play that’s more than 400 years old, that’s not a spoiler. However, Gold
has given the production a number of idiosyncratic touches, like playing a long
opening section in almost near darkness and the soldiers’ singing of a bluesy
song about cell phone calling, and there are indeed some alterations that would
be spoilers to reveal.
frequently examined themes of racism, xenophobia and unrestrained evil are all
evident here in varying degrees. But the production’s most striking departure
from traditional renderings may be in its subtle reworking of the Othello-Iago
relationship. Oyelowo adopts an African (or is it Caribbean?) accent to give a
hint of the outsider, but his Othello is not an exotic masterful warrior, a
noble figure, betrayed by a malevolent underling. We never see the general in
full regalia. He appears and stays in something like battle fatigues. He
carries the quiet assurance of a black soldier who’s made a good career in an
integrated army. There’s another black soldier on stage, and Iago’s wife,
Emilia, is played by a black actress, Marsha Stephanie Blake – and played quite
well. And while Iago displays a touch of outward deference to the general,
Othello could in the past have simply been a somewhat younger buddy who now has
made it through the ranks, leaving Iago behind and then even bypassing him for
promotion. There’s a sense of mano a mano familiarity between the two that
makes Iago’s manipulation of Othello – and his declaration of hatred for the
Moor -- all the more despicable and poignant. Craig’s performance – with his
working class British accent and noncom semi-swagger – compounds this with a
display of cold-blooded but charismatic intellect as he reveals to the audience
his plotting with more than a dollop of glee.
in the first half when Othello explodes with desperation and rage over
Desdemona’s supposed philandering with the lieutenant Cassio, as Iago eggs him
on and on, ending with the villain’s poisonous vow, profile to profile: “I am
your own forever.” It’s raw, dynamite theater, and you well might wonder how it
can be topped in the second half. But that’s exactly what happens. As Othello’s
despondency grows and Iago’s plotting becomes ever more insidious, it’s like
witnessing a human soul being put on the rack and torn asunder, piece by
Oyelowo pretty much own the stage, but, in addition to the aforementioned
Blake, there are several noteworthy contributions. Rachel Brosnahan makes
Desdemona a spirited and appealing 21st Century woman, but one still
possessed of a playful and inquiring innocence. Her early scenes with Othello
exude a fetching romantic sweetness. Finn Wittrock’s Michael Cassio is graced
with admirable sincerity, and as played by Glenn Fitzgerald, the rage of
Desdemona’s father, a Venetian senator, when he learns his daughter has eloped
with a black man, is fearsome. As Roderigo, the doltish civilian who pines for
Desdemona and becomes a tool in Iago’s scheming, Matthew Maher gets little
sympathy but a number of laughs.
In total, this
Othello lives up to expectations as an event, but it offers much more
than the chance to see a couple of movie stars up close. It’s the kind of event
that’s truly worth standing in line for cancellations.
New York Theatre Workshop
East 4th Street