Deadly seeds of doubt
By William Shakespeare
Cheek by Jowl theatre company
For director Declan Donnellan, Othello "appears exotic, yet it is about feelings that are very common - envy, spite, jealousy. It is a very painful, very dark play because it is about extremes of feeling - love and hate - side by side".
Donnellan believes that Iago loves Othello, that he desires to destroy him because his feelings for him are so intense. Jealousy is part of love; Iago is jealous of Cassio and Desdemona because they have replaced him in Othello's affections. There is a key line at the end (Act V, scene 1) when Iago says: "If Cassio do remainHe hath a daily beauty in his lifeThat makes me ugly. It is difficult to have compassion for him because we see ourselves in this."
The play is not, says Donnellan, "a piece of Hollywood sentimentality, with good pitched against evil. It is ambivalent. Evil travels along the same arteries as love."
If Iago, who speaks in prose as well as verse, could be a character in a modern play, Othello himself, believes Donnellan, could not. He exists in another, poetic, dimension. For this reason a production should not be too literal, too modern, so that we enter a world where poetry is possible: "If poetry is anomalous, Othello falls from the centre. And the play is called Othello, not Iago." In the same way, he thinks that the modern explanation that Iago is jealous of Othello because he is himself impotent is too literal: "We should follow Shakespeare and ask questions - not answer them," although he does concede that Iago's is "a very strange marriage".
His wife Emilia comes from being "nobody important to the person who carries the truth" at the end of the play.
Othello is played by Nonso Anozie, who took the title role in the 2002 RSC Academy production of King Lear, also directed by Donnellan. He has the necessary poetic quality, but Othello himself says he is "declin'dInto the vale of years". Donnellan says this is "not particularly significant", coming as it does at the height of his paranoia when Iago has been poisoning his mind in Act III, scene 3. Incidentally, "Iago does not destroy Othello; he gets Othello to destroy himself". Othello's anxiety stems not from fear of losing a young wife, but from being black, an outsider used to army life "marrying into the aristocracy. There is a strong whoremadonna theme in the play."
The handkerchief story does not add up logically, although if it was given to Othello's mother so that his father would remain faithful, "it is like a poison passed down through the family".
Religion, especially the idea of redemption, is says Donnellan, very important to Othello. It is clear in the imagery that people are "redeemed away from the state of animals, but they could easily be animals again".
Declan Donnellan's book, The Actor and the Target (Nick Hern Books pound;10.99) has a section on Othello and identity. Tour dates: March 23-27, Oxford Playhouse; April 27-May 1, Warwick Arts Centre; May 4-8, Theatre Royal Bath; May 18-22, The Lowry, Salford; May 25-29, Cambridge Arts Theatre; and London later in the year. www.cheekbyjowl.com