by Carol Rocamora
There’s no place to hide in Sam Gold’s mesmerizing production of Othello, where two of Britain’s top actors – David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig – are playing out a deadly game of war. From the moment you enter the New York Theatre Workshop, you’re overwhelmed by its brute force.
The small auditorium has been gutted, stripped bare, and converted into a makeshift military barracks. The audience, seated on bleachers, surrounds a playing area where soldiers lie on mattresses, work out, wait, and watch the carnage unfold. There is no theatrical artifice of any kind – no costumes, no stage lighting. All is naked naturalism. The action is played out continuously under the merciless glare of the house lights. It’s the culture of war wherein no prisoners are taken and we, who witness it, are not spared either.
In this stark setting, Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy and treachery plays out before our fearful eyes. As the play begins in utter darkness, we know that we’re in for a traumatic ride. First we hear Daniel Craig’s smooth, familiar voice as Iago, plotting revenge on his general Othello, who has not promoted him. Iago and his foil, Roderigo (Matthew Maher) conspire to entrap Cassio (Finn Wittrock), Othello’s young favorite, by suggesting that Cassio’s having an affair with Desdemona, Othello’s lovely bride (Rachel Brosnahan). The suspicion will arouse Othello’s jealousy – which Iago senses will be his tragic flaw. Othello, a proud, self-assured leader, falls easily into Iago’s trap and, as you know, it all ends tragically.
The thrill of Gold’s unconventional production lies in its theatrical rawness, providing a platform for the astonishing performances of the two leading actors. Imagine how it feels to have Daniel Craig (aka “007”, screen celebrity), stand two feet away from you, look you right in the eye and recite those spellbinding soliloquies of furious revenge! At first, Craig looks like “one of the guys” in the unit, dressed unassumingly in shorts, work boots, and green army cap. He camouflages himself in jocular geniality, while lying and manipulating towards his dark purposes. As his true motives are unmasked, Craig morphs from a clever court jester into a merciless killer. It’s a cunning, charismatic performance.
Equally charismatic is David Oyelowo. An actor of admirable range (from a dignified MLK in Selma to a spiritual Henry VI), as Othello he appears to be even greater in stature – confident and commanding at first, then irrational and violent as he becomes entangled in Iago’s net. He manages to pull off a deeply moving portrait of the tortured Moor, despite his violent murder of his innocent bride, and his agonizing contrition is utterly convincing.
As for the women’s roles, both Brosnahan’s Desdemona and Marsha Stephanie Blake’s Emilia (Iago’s wife) seem subservient at first, as befits the sexist military culture, but grow greatly in stature, as they find the courage to challenge their respective husbands.
Still, the show belongs to Oyelowo and Craig, equally. Rarely have I seen two actors share a stage with such generosity and support. Indeed, their performances augment one another’s. Whereas the other Shakespearean tragedies (Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear) focus on one protagonist, in Othello the limelight is shared by two towering figures, trapped in a fateful symbiotic relationship. Whether they’re locked in an embrace or in deadly hand-to-hand combat, one man is not complete without the other.
In the final moment, with six corpses piled on stage, Iago is forced to confront the carnage he’s created. Before he’s led away to punishment, he extends his hand to touch the shrouded head of the leader he so admired and despised. In that complex moment, we see a blinding blend of intense love and hate that brought him and the others down.
A final note: though the play takes place in Venice and Cyprus, the barracks remain the same. (A mention of troops in Aleppo drew a gasp from the audience on the night I attended). Director Sam Gold and his designers have exposed a searing truth – that war culture is the same everywhere, and the consequences, both political and personal, are devastating.
Shakespeare’s Othello, directed by Sam Gold, at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4 Street, playing thru January 8.
Photos: Chad Batka