Not always black and white

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
Heather Neill talks to director Gregory Doran about his production of Othello that emphasises its military setting


Royal Shakespeare Company

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Although Othello is described as "the Moor of Venice", most of the play's action takes place on Cyprus.

A small garrison of Christians controlling a Muslim population: there are obvious resonances here for anyone wanting to see modern parallels, either with Iraq or with British occupation of Cyprus in the 1950s, but director Gregory Doran has avoided being too specific. "Let people draw those conclusions for themselves," he says.

Although this is a domestic tragedy, Doran says: "It needs to be an entirely military setting in which Desdemona and Emilia are isolated in a man's world.

"Shakespeare was careful to put the action in a war zone; this is not the case in his source, Cinthio's Hecatommithi, but Shakespeare turns up the gas. Everybody is nervous. Unless you understand the political climate, you don't understand the tensions."

The play is famously about jealousy, but, says Doran, it is not Othello who is jealous, until Iago works on him, but everyone else.

"Iago is jealous, his wife Emilia, Roderigo, and one of the first things Cassio says to Bianca (a prostitute) is 'You're jealous'. It's endemic.

Iago's motives are difficult to define. Racism isn't necessarily one: it's endemic to the culture. It is interesting for us with an Othello (Sello Maake Ka Ncube) and an Iago (Antony Sher) brought up in South Africa on different sides of apartheid. But Tony has made an interesting discovery: we assume that Shakespeare's characters, except Iago, tell the truth in asides, but why should we make him an exception? Perhaps he really believes that Emilia has had an affair."

Othello's language is denser, more rhetorical ("very much the language of Zulu culture, of praise-singing," says Doran) than Iago's, which is full of sexual imagery. It is sometimes suggested that Iago's actions stem from his impotence and Doran agrees that his fixation on sexuality may hint at this.

We assume that Othello is a career soldier, probably not very experienced with women.

Doran says: "He is used to controlling his passions. The age difference between him and Desdemona is very important and the fact that she is young.

For Othello the crisis comes about not so much because he is black and she white but because he is older: of course, he thinks, she would go off with young Cassio. Lisa Dillon's youth is a great help: she can play Desdemona's excitement at being in a war zone, but also her vulnerability when isolated. Desdemona is childlike, she can be wilful, wants to get her own way. She dropped hints to win Othello in the first place and defied her father, who is probably Othello's age. There may be another kind of jealousy there."

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