There’s good news! Anthony Cochrane touches greatness as Iago in the Aquila Theatre Company’s Othello . In a miracle of acting, he succeeds in making evil appear not only part of the natural order, but reasonable .
You must see this remarkable actor’s quintessence of “motiveless malignity,” though I have my doubts about the bag of tricks within the Othello production itself. And you must first find the production, which takes place in a no man’s land theater space in the bowels of the Baruch Performing Arts Center on 25th Street. All theaters are what performers make of them, however, and Mr. Cochrane’s exceptionally fine Iago makes the visit a memorable pleasure.
As for the new production, Aquila’s intention has always been to make Shakespeare “accessible” and “contemporary.” But Othello is no Pericles . What could be more accessible than a melodrama about a dropped handkerchief? What could be more contemporary than an overheated play about sex, jealousy and race?
The action takes place in Venice and Cyprus, and the director, Robert Richmond, has set his modern-dress production mostly on a British military base in Cyprus. The concept isn’t new, but no matter. For all the gimmicks-a mosh pit of punk soldiers, a “Bianca’s Bar,” lap dancers et al.-the production is at its most compelling when Mr. Richmond lets the drama speak for itself on the bare platform stage, an empty space filled with what George Bernard Shaw called the “word-music” of Othello .
But Iago takes the play in the way that Shylock takes The Merchant of Venice (though Shylock does it in only four scenes). Apart from Othello’s climatic, murderous deathbed scene with Desdemona, I’ve never understood why Shakespeare didn’t name the play Iago .
Iago has the biggest role by far. Everything revolves around him; everything happens because of him. He bends the action to his will. He has the soliloquies. Who are we most spellbound by? Othello’s volcanic jealousy can easily seem foolish, his madness operatic (hence Verdi’s Otello ). But the force and baseness of Iago make their indelible mark.
Mr. Cochrane’s performance is masterly precisely because he’s so comfortable in the role that he appears not to be acting. In his stocky military bearing, he simply and poisonously is . Evil suits him! But Iago is a natural force of twisted nature, and Mr. Cochrane’s relaxed naturalism makes him, in turn, more dangerously riveting. His smirking “aaaw” at the sight of Othello and Desdemona makes us laugh. Are we all cynics now? The adoring couple are too much in love, and Iago is a man to whom all passion is weakness.
He knows the Moor’s fatal weakness: his blackness. Heroic general or not, Othello is the outsider who ran off with the white society girl from Venice. And she with him-betraying her loving father in the process. But if Desdemona could betray the father, why not the husband? If she could sleep with black Othello, who else would she sleep with?
Desdemona and Othello are types: the infatuated white innocent and the erotic black man. But they genuinely worship each other, we know it. More to the lethal point-Iago knows it. Worse, he knows that a man’s jealousy can turn a faithful wife into a slut:
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make
That shall enmesh them all.
Iago is the disillusioned good soldier of the old school, and he’s the perfect modern cynic and rationalist. He paid his dues with years of cursed loyal service to Othello, but opportunistic Cassio was promoted above him-“preferred.” There’s the motive!
Preferment goes by letter and affection,
And not by the old gradation, where
Stood heir to th’ first.
But does Iago need a motive? He sees base humanity for what it is, and acts accordingly. Disgusted, “honest” Iago would wreck the world for sport-and he does.
The new production also has Lloyd Notice’s strong Othello of majesty and self-hatred. His poetic tenderness is admirable, though he can be a little too giddy in love. Mr. Notice is at his best-and most touching-when he’s out of love, driven mad, dying on a kiss. Kathryn Merry’s Desdemona shines in the later scenes too, while Lisa Carter is consistently excellent as Emilia, particularly the Emilia of moral outrage.
The platform stage creates a welcome directness and simplicity. But bare productions can be too naked. Mr. Richmond hasn’t conjured up an atmosphere of Venice or of its confident, seductive decadence. Bianca’s rowdy neon “nightclub” doesn’t quite do it for Cyprus. No doubt there are budget constraints, but, alas, we could be anywhere.
Members of the audience are also encouraged to mingle with the cast during crowd scenes-as if they’re part of the action. Is there no one left on earth, I wonder, who won’t join in ? Are we all performers now?
It’s intended to be fun. (But Othello isn’t a game.) There were more serious lapses. The decision to distribute Twiglets to the audience members sitting at tables around the action wasn’t an inspired choice. ( Othello isn’t a movie.) But we were in real trouble when it came to the group wave accompanied by the soccer hooligan’s chant of “England! England!” ( Othello isn’t the World Cup, either.)
The idea, I guess, is that the drunk British army in Cyprus is no different from chauvinistic soccer fans everywhere. But today’s reality of soldiers on foreign soil is far more disturbing than a few noisy beers and a lap dance. The icons of Abu Ghraib are now burned in the collective memory. What theater metaphor could horrify us more than the reality on our own TV screens?
Beside, the soccer analogy is surely banal, the wave embarrassingly dated. Only last summer, the British army during Henry V in Central Park broke into the wave and chants of “England! England!” on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. It wasn’t a good idea then, and it isn’t a good idea today. Will everyone please stop?
Mr. Richmond’s production works well enough when the “popularizing” of the already popular Othello subsides and the text becomes all. But if we were in search of a truly experimental production, we would have to look much more adventurously elsewhere. The play’s Muslim connection is well known. Cyprus was an outpost of Christianity in an Islamic sea. The Turkish enemy was Muslim. I’m indebted to the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate for pointing out its real significance.
“The primary sense of the term ‘Moor’ in early modern English,” he writes, “was as a religious, not a racial, identification. Moor meant ‘Mohammedan,’ that is Muslim.” Othello is therefore a double outsider: He’s a Muslim who’s a Christian convert. He’s both the foreign “other” and the enemy within.
By killing Desdemona, he renounces his Christianity and damns himself. He becomes the Turk. Othello , Mr. Bate points out, is located on the East-West frontier between Christianity and Islam, and he concludes with this intriguing challenge:
“Shakespeare lives when he is read and performed in ways that are simultaneously tuned to the present and true to the text. In our not so brave new millennium, as the battle-lines reinflect those of the 16th-century Mediterranean, waging the forces of global capitalism against the imperatives of Islamic fundamentalism, few literary questions will be more significant than that of how best to interpret and perform this play.”
The performances are fine and even great this time round. The best interpretation of Othello has yet to be made.