Reviewed by Robin Breon
In 1833 history was made when an African American named Ira Aldridge walked out onto the stage of Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in the role of Othello - the first black actor ever to do so in the heart of the Empire. He was booed by the audience and denigrated by the critics, some of whom were actually insulted that a person of African descent would have the temerity to assay the role!
Almost 175 years later the first Canadian of African descent has finally been given the opportunity to portray the tragic Moor of Venice at the Stratford Festival, and Philip Akin's performance, backed by a sumptuous supporting cast, has engendered standing ovations and mostly positive reviews.
Make no mistake about it, although full page newspaper advertisements may hype the mainstage productions King Lear, Merchant of Venice, and Oklahoma with the most visible adverts, extolling the talents of Brian Bedford, Cynthia Dale, et al, Othello is the breakout hit of the Festival's season with Philip Akin and Jonathan Goad its stars.
In fact, one of the ironic diktats of our age in which art and commerce both pay rent to the same landlord, would suggest that it is the play which is doing fine that gets the least amount of help by way of advertising. The smaller seating space at the Tom Patterson Theatre will sell out quite nicely with this production, so book your seats now.
When Margaret Webster directed her benchmark version of Othello on Broadway in 1943 with Paul Robeson in the title role and Jose Ferrer playing Iago, she wrote: "When Paul Robeson stepped onto the stage for the very first time, when he spoke his very first line, he immediately, by his very presence, brought an incalculable sense of reality to the entire play." I believe it is this hyper sense of reality - of seeing an old play anew as if for the first time, that is the striking achievement of this production.
In the current Stratford version, director David Latham wisely (and thankfully) let's Shakespeare's genius carry the day. With period costumes (designed with inspiration by Carolyn M. Smith) and a bare stage that makes effective use of set pieces and lighting (by Michael J. Whitfield), the actors are free to do what they do best - act.
The beginning of the play is slow and, in fact, almost inaudible at times with Goad's tentative Iago giving new meaning to the term "underplaying". It is not until Iago constructs his marvelous improvisation with Cassio over the need to have a few drinks before assuming the watch Othello has assigned them, that Goad seems to really kick into gear and the play takes flight, building inexorably to its tragic end.
This bit of binge drinking is really a remarkable scene (augmented nicely by the fighting choreographed by Nicolas Van Burek) in which this sense of hyper reality (to get that drunk in real life would take a few hours) takes us swiftly through the berth between thought and action. When the apprehensive Cassio gives in with: "I'll do it, but it dislikes me" you know he's doomed as doomed can be. When a drunken brawl breaks out and Othello has to step in order to separate the antagonists, we realize its starting to get ugly and that Iago is gaining the upper hand.
Philip Akin's Othello is a straightforward, utterly compelling and believable piece of work with none of the false embellishments one may associate with the role. Nowhere is this better exemplified than when he enters Desdemona's bedchamber for the last time with the words: "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul." How many baritones have affected a false sounding tremolo in place of real emotion? Not so with Akin. His final approach to Desdemona is all the more chilling for its lack of feigned emotionality.
And all nitpicking aside, Jonathan Goad as Iago is a wonder to behold - pure evil sugar-coated with a sense of blasˇ nonchalance, barely masking his driving ambition to overthrow the Moor that has the audience groaning audibly at the unmitigated audacity of his nefarious scheming.
Jeffrey Wetsch as the ill-fated Lieutenant Cassio and Gordon S. Miller as the noble but not too nimble Roderigo are nicely differentiated while Stephen Russell's Brabantio is so arresting as the enraged father of Desdemona that we are sorry Shakespeare uses him only to explicate the basic plot of the play, which is it's ok for the state to use a black soldier as a mercenary in the field of battle but don't bring him home to dinner with my daughter.
But it is left to Claire Jullien and Lucy Peacock as Desdemona and Emilia respectively, to enhance their roles with a new reading. Jullien's Desdemona is not the compliant ingˇnue enamored with the great man, but rather a woman who has freely chosen a husband and insists upon equal standing. Her final scene in which she asks to be allowed a prayer sounds more like a demand than a supplication.
This is equally true of Peacock's Emilia, who may be carrying over feminist echoes of her hit play, The Blond, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead which is being remounted again this season in the Studio Theatre. From her very first interaction with Iago we know that she hates the man. No false pretense here - she's lived with him and she knows. Her final admonition to Desdemona on the fate of women in the world just hovers ominously in the air: "Let husbands know their wives have sense like them...Then let them use us well. Else let them know the ills we do, their ills instruct us so."
Shakespeare worth seeing and believing.