When you modernize Shakespeare, the text and the production diverge, running on two courses, with genius convergences and other moments of distance. In Sam Gold’s star-studded and very sold out production of Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop, with both the audience and actors immersed in what appears to be the American barracks somewhere in the Middle East, setting serves that function. While the verbal mentions of wars fought by Venetians evoke thoughts of a production where Ren Faire enthusiasts hurl blades through one another’s velvet, what you actually see appears starkly different. However, the play’s final line referencing a battle Othello fought in Aleppo chillingly aligns with the stage setting, especially this month.
A less simple example, though, is the play’s approach to race and racism. The many moments of textual divergence in modernizations certainly shouldn’t be seen as a deterrent from reconceptualizing Shakespeare — as that challenge is part of the beauty of getting to perform such old texts. But Shakespeare’s two plays with the most charged racial and ethnic identity politics — Othello and The Merchant of Venice — are already so complicated in their relationship to today’s discussions of identity that modernizing them can further confuse their meanings rather than elucidate them. Thus, Fun Home director Gold’s guttingly acted and smartly designed production starring David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig ends up being conceptually intriguing, but frustratingly opaque.
Othello follows the titular “moorish” Venetian army general as he falls in love with and marries the daughter of a Venetian senator. Meanwhile, his ensign, Iago, activates all of his jealousy into a multifarious plot to bring Othello down, engaging with the audience in scheming soliloquy, leading Othello to believe his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful, and to ultimately strangle her to death, before realizing he’s been elaborately duped by Iago, and killing himself.
Gold cast nonwhite actors in select roles besides Othello — which certainly far better represents the demographic of an American military barracks (and America) than a group of white actors ever would. It also transforms the structure of the society around which the text was written. Besides simply making it more modern, the implication of having a racially diverse cast in Othello means that it isn’t just a white society destroying a black man. It can, looking at it cynically, be seen as a gesture towards theatrical diversity/modernity in a play where that gesture actually undermines and dilutes the message about racism and exclusion. Or it could be seen as a smart depiction of a superficially accepting, but nonetheless structurally white supremacist society — in which people of all colors are immersed — slowly revealing the true nature of its imbalances, an inherent oppression gilded by inclusive niceties. In description alone, this reading vastly bolsters the play’s relevancy to the current day.
But that latter reading, while it certainly can be extrapolated, is not made wholly clear when actually watching the play. Alexis Soloski claimed in her laudatory review in The Guardian that “interestingly, this production minimizes questions of race and racism.” Similarly, in his also largely positive review, Jesse Green writes for Vulture that “the contemporary setting and the multiracial casting of the soldiers, who become named players in the drama as needed, crosscut [the] awareness” of the racialized story. Ben Brantley wrote for the New York Times that “the colorblind casting of other roles…makes Othello’s blackness less of a cultural issue than it often is. What interests Mr. Gold is the intimate spectacle of two disastrously different, equally great minds in collision.” While the production may be perceived as taking a more modern approach to racism, the text doesn’t wholly support it, and it thereby may come across as “minimized.”
The text was written in a society that, albeit infinitely racist, had a different set of codes and connotations surrounding race. And though approximately a fifth of the text has been cut for this production, it’s still hard to tell how this verbal relic of 1603 — and Shakespeare’s own indictment of racism or salacious story perpetuating it — is meant to align with the vision of this production. In his review, Green wondered, “When characters played by other black actors do not flinch to hear Othello referred to as ‘sooty’ or as a ‘Barbary horse,’ do we understand that Othello’s presumption upon the Venetian elite, and upon Iago, has not been a matter of color but of class?”
A production minimizing race would ignore just how deeply the text of the play really is about race (just as much as it’s about destructive hyper-masculinity — and that’s on full display in this production that often feels, to the claustrophobia-inducing design’s credit, like being stuck inside a sweaty armpit). It’s a play in which the only (written) character of color is referred to by his race, where he’s also referred to as various slurs, and where his character’s power is taken as a threat by an insecure white man who thereby seeks to destroy him by drawing out what he believes is the barbarism at his core. Indeed, there’s no added suggestion in this production of whether the few characters now played by actors of color are meant to be regarded as perpetuating a racist system for their own benefit, or are silent because of fear of reprisal, or if this production merely had intent of simple “modernization.” It becomes unclear whether we, as an audience, are just supposed to pretend the racialized words are unweighted, or flinch on behalf of the characters.
One element that makes me lean towards thinking the purpose of the show is actually to add an intersectional twist to Shakespeare’s work arises from the casting of Emilia by a black actress (Orange Is the New Black‘s Marsha Stephanie Blake, who deftly delivers her character’s socially acute monologue about gender prior to Desdemona’s death). This choice is intriguing in what it might say about Iago’s own relationship to race and the “inclusive” society he lives in. This doesn’t mean that his motivations aren’t racially charged, but rather that his racism is even more a matter of opportunism than as it’s originally written: he can have a black wife, and can gleefully sing along to Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” as the soldiers all do in this production, but still be threatened by the idea of a powerful black man to the point of destroying him. As such, Craig doesn’t play Iago as serpentine and scheming, but rather as someone who tries to pass himself, and his racism, off as nonchalant — even as he’s doing the scheming.
But the most disjointed aspect of this shifted structure actually impacts the role of Othello the most negatively. Oyelowo gives a commanding, charismatic performance in the first half, and goes full out in depicting the character, as written, as deteriorating to a level of near-fantastical, raging, epileptic madness in the second. The character, formerly a measured, kind, and adept military man, begins to have a series of seizures, presumably from the jealous rage Iago has put him in, described by Iago:
The lethargy must have his quiet course: If not, he foams at mouth and by and by Breaks out to savage madness.
It’s an odd component that’s written into the play to contend with; as it’s written, and here directed, Othello begins enacting a form of exaggerated madness that parallels what the white characters’ racist rhetoric predicts, and once he’s murdered Desdemona, the blame is racialized: Emilia shouts “O, the more angel she, And you the blacker devil!”
Again, there’s an uncomfortable ambiguity over whether this should be taken as a comment on Othello’s character as immobilized within an oppressive system, or just a deeply racist trope from 17th century literature that here goes too under-analyzed, since it’s not a white actor hurling the racialized blame. Modernizing the story as such also makes Othello’s breakdown seem more disproportionate: the extremity of Othello’s mental undoing makes a bit more sense for a character who’s been completely alienated from the society around him, and made to feel alone in his body and mind. This behavior also might feel less out of place within the realm of 17th century hyperbole about notions of insanity, but set in the intimate space of the New York Theatre Workshop, within this hyper-modern grit of the barracks, it actually felt more like a submission to the play’s dated understanding of race.
This all makes me recall a production of The Merchant of Venice I recently caught, by the Globe Theatre, at Lincoln Center. That production was done with a stylized and critical take on period specificity, imposing a very contemporary/analytic reading on the play which was set in its original time and place. Performing it this way allowed the text — and the context — to speak for themselves as maps of what an oppressive society looked like during the time Shakespeare depicted. The audience could thereby draw their own parallels to their present, without a totalizing vision of the present sometimes working in conjunction with the text’s meanings, and sometimes scrambling them.
Certainly, sometimes that shrouded meaning befits the times. America is an “integrated” society that has long fallaciously self-congratulated itself as a “melting pot,” but which just gave power to a man who catered to its bedrock strain of white supremacist sentiment. The temptation to look at a production of Othello to shed light on our society’s own racist tendencies in this context is appealing. Yet as with all modernizations of Shakespeare, the play is split into two coexisting visions, that of the writing in 1603, and that of the direction/aesthetic in 2016: and so the depiction of racist societies, too, move as separate entities trying to cohere. The question remains about whether the production minimizes race to focus more on a depoliticized story of personal betrayal or re-contextualizes it to make its racial connotations more reflective of the insidious racism within our own “integrated” society. Despite being an otherwise visceral and impressive performance, in our current political context, that element of conceptual ambiguity was frustrating.