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The Globe’s ‘Othello’ Tackles Race, Gender, And The Mystery Of Iago

Blair Underwood And Richard Thomas Take Lead Roles

Evening Edition

Aired 7/2/14 on KPBS Midday Edition.

The Globe's 'Othello' Tackles Race, Gender, And The Mystery Of Iago

GUESTS:

Barry Edlestein is The Old Globe Theatre's artistic director

Blair Underwood plays Othello

Kristen Connolly plays Desdemona

Richard Thomas plays Iago


Transcript

Aired 6/27/14 on KPBS News.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with the director and cast of the Globe's "Othello" about the themes of race and gender, and the mystery of Iago's motivation.

Transcript

With “Othello” (running through July 27), The Old Globe proves that Shakespeare’s 400-year-old plays are timeless because the themes he dealt with are human and universal.

The text of Shakespeare’s plays remains the same but the world around them is constantly changing.

“So different plays tend to mean different things at different times in history,” says the Globe’s artistic director, Barry Edlestein. “'The Merchant of Venice’ was a different play before the Holocaust than it is after the Holocaust. ... And so the questions that are percolating in the atmosphere tend to hook on like barnacles to the text of Shakespeare’s play and change what the play is about.”

Take “Othello", a Shakespeare play about a brilliant general, brought down by the Machiavellian plans of his envious lieutenant. Othello is a Moor surrounded by white characters.

“I think race is one of the elements of the play,” says actor Blair Underwood. “His downfall is not driven by race, but you can’t get away from it. It’s one of the components that brings him down. But, of course, historically it depends on where you are, the historical context, as to how it is received. [It was] during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s when people started really relying on the racial dynamic, the race element.”

Underwood plays Othello in the current production directed by Edelstein.

“When the world at large started thinking critically about questions of race,” Edelstein says, “there were major productions both in England and in the U.S. that coincided with the Civil Rights movement that really suddenly declared that this is a play specifically about race, where the play suddenly became starkly about race and little else.

"But now it’s 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, and the center of the play moves around again. As society’s attitudes start to shift. Right now, questions about misogyny and gender are very much in the world.”

Credit: The Old Globe

Richard Thomas as Iago and Blair Underwood as Othello in the Globe's "Othello," directed by Barry Edelstein.

Richard Thomas, once endeared to American TV audiences as John-Boy in “The Waltons,” plays Iago, the architect of the play’s tragedy.

“Iago’s misogyny is a very interesting thing,” Thomas says. “And how these men view women and who these women are and what purpose they serve and it’s a male world, it’s an army world. And it’s a story of domestic violence really. So I think the themes of gender are very clear in this production, and I think are important in the play.”

Kristen Connolly plays Desdemona, Othello's wife.

“The women in the play are really treated just terribly, and I think that’s something that we have really been delving into,” says Connolly. “We’ve explored it a lot, and I think the violence in the play is really violent. And it should be. Because these women for no reason are just attacked and brutalized, and I think it’s an important part of the play. And it’s an important conversation to be having right now.”

As Othello’s wife, Desdemona is the victim of Iago’s manipulations and the object of her husband's misplaced jealousy. Connolly says it would be a mistake to play her as weak.

“I think she has an enormous reservoir of kindness and generosity, and I think that can sort of lure you into just being nice all the time. And that’s something we have been fighting a lot in rehearsals,” Connolly says.

Companion Viewing

"A Double Life" (1947) Drama about an actor playing Othello who goes mad

"Othello" (1952) Directed by and starring Orson Welles

"Filming 'Othello'" (1978) Documentary about the making of Orson Welles' "Othello"

"Othello" (1995) With Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh as Othello and Iago

"Othello" (2001) British TV series serving up a modern version of the play with Eamonn Walker and Christopher Eccleston in leads

"O" (2001) Contemporary retelling of the play that places it in a high school setting

“The play starts out and she actually made a really rebellious decision to marry this person against her father’s wishes and in secret, and then is really strong and holds her ground and says this is my husband and I don’t think there’s anything weak about that.”

But Iago is able to find each character’s weakness and exploit it to his own ends.

In the case of Othello and Desdemona, he sees that in their idealized love there’s a lack of intimacy that he can exploit because, as actor Richard Thomas points out, “the kind of misunderstanding that Othello and Desdemona have is not so possible in a truly intimate relationship."

"It’s completely a ship of fools," Thomas says. "All these other characters are talking about honor, nobility, reputation, virtue, love, devotion — and Iago’s point of view is all of these things are constructs, which have no real essential meaning and, of course, he’s right. They are constructs and he sees all these people who are reportedly living by all these constructs and proceeds to trip them all up and I can make them all do things that they can’t even imagine they would be capable of doing. All these people of love and honor and valor and reputation and virtue.”

But Thomas warns that although “people keep looking at Iago for a motivation, you have to be careful about trying to locate standard character motivations in Iago.”

“Today, we would call him a sociopath or psychopath,” Underwood says, “One who does not understand empathy, he understands the difference between right and wrong. But empathy, he’s missing a chip.”

Ironically, rehearsals began at the same time as the shootings in Santa Barbara, when people were asking themselves why would someone do that. How could someone do that? Edelstein says Iago suggests that sometimes there’s no satisfying answer.

Credit: The Old Globe

Kristen Connolly as Desdemona and Blair Underwood as "Othello" in the Globe's production of Shakespeare's "Othello."

“The interesting thing about him is that he provides all these different explanations,” Edelstein says. “Throughout the play he lists explanations after explanations, but they still don’t really add up to why a guy would do something as completely inexplicable and devastating as he does. He’s one of Shakespeare’s first examples of really trying to cope with something that finally cannot be explained.”

He’s been defined as evil, and that’s something audiences are always fascinated by.

“Evil exists in the world, and it’s frightening, deeply frightening,” Connolly points out. “That is something that has not changed between when the play was written and right now.”

But there’s a danger of playing Iago as a blatant villain from the beginning. Shakespeare has people constantly address Iago as “honest” and “good,” and it’s important he genuinely seems that way so we understand how he can deceive good, honorable people like Othello. Casting Thomas, whom we remember best as John-Boy Walton, helps achieve this.

“Richard’s own charm combined with the fact that we have this collective memory of him as the nicest guy who ever lived in the U.S. makes that happen very powerfully,” Edelstein says.

Underwood adds, “As an actor and a human being, there’s an essence of goodness [in Thomas], which I think is critical in this Iago character in order for Othello to believe him. If the audience can see that, then they can understand how Othello can see that, because it is a leap. Iago convinces Othello pretty fast that his wife is cheating on him.”

But after dominating most of the play and orchestrating Othello’s downfall, Iago goes silent at the end of the play.

Performances

"Othello"

June 20 through July 27, Old Globe Theater

“He says, ‘From this time forth I never will speak word,’” Edelstein says. “It’s both frustrating and also in its weird sort of way breaks you through to some other kind of realm of experience because he’s saying, 'Hey, there’s evil in the world.' It’s just metaphysical and it’s existential, and we all just have to cope with it. And that seems to be the territory that Shakespeare wants to explore in the play.”

And as recent headlines prove, it’s a territory that remains all too familiar. Underwood notes that no matter how much technology advances or how cultures and societies evolve, what’s most striking is “how much we have stayed the same as humans and as a human race.”

And that’s the genius of Shakespeare. No matter what he wrote about, be it kings of centuries past or foolish lovers in the forest, his plays remain timeless because they are so humanistic and refrain from judging the characters.

“One of the things that makes him a great humanist,” Thomas says, “is that the fundamental mystery of life and mystery of human nature is at the heart of Shakespeare. He has a way of being absent, of recusing himself from the judge’s chair and you have to make up your own mind who these people are.”

Credit: The Old Globe

Richard Thomas, Blair Underwood, and Kristen Connolly star in "Othello" at the Old Globe.

In the case of the Globe’s “Othello,” Edelstein notes, “All three — Richard, Kristen, and Blair — have an extremely winning way that makes us really care and invest in them, which is what makes the tragedy of the ending that much more potent.”

And just as potent now as it was 400 years ago.

(I had to include this short video of James Earl Jones reading a scene from "Othello" since a full recorded performance does not to my knowledge exist.)

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