Othello usually gives me that cozy feeling, believe it or not, the one that comes from spending time among the Great Unanswerable Questions, such as how does evil get a hold of us, and what makes the other-color of a person’s skin inspire passion-fury? Those questions tower over us like mountains marking where we cannot go, which makes the world feel like a smaller house with fewer rooms to heat: cozy. Who can say, after all?
But the current production of Othello at the Blackfriars Playhouse doesn’t let you shrug your shoulders at the mysteries of life.
“[Othello] can play like a runaway locomotive going downhill that picks up more and more speed before it jumps the tracks and leaves characters decimated and dead and audiences shocked and rocked in its wake,” says director Jim Warren, and the locomotion of Rick Blunt’s performance as Iago hurtles this production forward faster than the speed of thought. But near the end, right before the killing starts, Shakespeare sends the men offstage and gives the women a chance to talk quietly. And slowly.
What they talk about, of course, is men — it’s a man’s play, after all, as it was a man’s world then and may still be a man’s world now, for reasons I don’t understand. The women are in extremis because of the men. Desdemona knows her husband thinks she’s opening a place in bed for Cassio, and Emilia knows her husband has cast that false impression on Othello’s mind. Neither woman knows why; nor do we know, really, for listening to Iago explain why he hates Othello is like gazing at the mountain range of who-can-say. Neither he nor they nor we know what makes darkness so alluring, but we know that it calls. And that people are inclined to answer.
At its best, Othello shows us people answering the call of darkness with the sort of lust that doesn’t pause to wonder why, which is what makes it feel like a runaway train. It’s also what makes us pose the questions which the men on stage don’t seem to consider.
Why does Iago want Othello to believe his wife is screwing someone else? Because Othello passed him over for promotion? Because black Othello has the power to promote white-skinned Iago? Because black Othello has the love of lovely white-skinned Desdemona? Oh, not just the love — it must be more than that; it must be hunger for a darkness that can stand against the whiteness of her skin, dark within the light, an other-lust that makes her want to fill herself with him. What makes us hunger so? What makes a husband want to kill his wife for opening herself to someone else? And why, for God’s sake, would a man whose race and rank and self-respect have taught him more about the human spirit than most of us will ever know — why does that man want to think his wife’s a whore? Othello gives himself to that idea absolutely, like a man discovering a truth he’s always hoped to find.
But in their quiet moment near the end, the women ask a different kind of question. Can you imagine treating your husband the way our husbands treat us, Desdemona asks Emilia. Would you do such a thing for all the world?
For all the world? Well, sure. “Who wouldn’t make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?” Emilia counters.
But then she moves from hypothetical terrain, which is easy to navigate, into reality: “What is it that they do when they change us for others?” she asks. “Is it sport?… And doth affection breed it?…Is it frailty that thus errs?”
In this quiet moment, Bridget Rue and Stephanie Holladay Earl as Emilia and Desdemona address each other with the sort of tenderness and intimacy that runaway locomotives rarely allow. Even the speech Othello makes while he gazes at his sleeping wife — then smells her, then finally kisses her goodbye, again and again, then kills her — seems to be sucked out of him by momentum that Fernando Lamberty can’t control. The only other time that forward motion pauses for a quiet note of tenderness is when Othello names Iago his lieutenant in Cassio’s place, and Iago whispers, “I am your own forever.”
One of the dangers of tenderness, one of the reasons men might balk at intimacy, is that it lets us ask — it makes us ask — a different kind of question, the kind with perfectly specific answers. Is it sport? I think it is. Does affection breed it? I think it does. And is it frailty? Yes, it’s frailty. The truly chilling thing about that quiet moment, about tenderness, about Shakespeare, is that Emilia has the answers to those questions, and the answers don’t make any difference.
There’s nothing cozy about that.
Running time: two hours and thirty minutes, with one twenty-minute intermission.
Othello, by William Shakespeare. Produced by the Blackfriars Playhouse. Directed by Jim Warren. Featuring Fernando Lamberty, Stephanie Holladay Earl, Rick Blunt, Bridget Rue, Patrick Earl, Emily Joshi-Powell, Patrick Midgley, Colin Ryan, David Millstone, Joey Ibanez, and Russell Daniels. Reviewed by Mark Dewey