A conversation with the director, Othello

Othello, directed by Alison Darcy. (courtesy the Segal Centre)
Othello, directed by Alison Darcy. (courtesy the Segal Centre)

Daniel J. Rowe

It is one of Shakespeare’s most engaging and intriguing works: Othello, now playing at the Segal Centre in Montreal. It is a favourite of the Bard Brawl and watched with scrutiny by viewers. Check out brawler Eric Jean‘s review. Director Alison Darcy spoke with the Bard Brawl.

Bard Brawl: Othello is huge in scope and theme, and it’s been done a lot. Does that add pressure or do you enjoy that?

Alison Darcy: Both. I think it adds pressure and I kind of enjoy it. Of course everyone has their own ideas about the play and about Shakespeare and how it should be done, and I like the fact that there is no should and this is the way our team felt that it’s truth was being revealed in the most interesting way in the moment. This was what we wanted to offer from it. It’s interesting to challenge people with that because so many people have really strong preconceptions about how Shakespeare should be done. It’s interesting not to necessarily always follow that, but to go with what you think is the truth of the play.

B.B.: In the same sense don’t you find that often people allow a lot more exploration these days then they used to?

A.D.: For sure. Now, it’s almost expected to have your own interpretation, but it’s still, when it comes down to actual technique of the language or certain characters, people still have their reservations and their favourites and their favourite lines and their ideas of what things mean. Before it used to be more stylistically, they would say that it would have to be done in a certain period or a certain focus on the language in a very specific way, accents or whatnot. Now it’s more about interpretation, but still people have their preconceptions and they come out quite ferociously at times. People are quite willing to go to battle to defend their ideas of how Shakespeare should be done. Particularly this play.

B.B.: You use water as a metaphor throughout, and the final dramatic scene was very much centred on it. Can you tell me a bit about why you decided to use water in that way?

A.D.: For me it came from the text. It’s really prevalent in the text – water as a theme. It’s constantly referred to as being symbolically linked with deceit, and with passion. It says, ‘she’s false as water.’ A lot of the major themes are linked to water in the play, and so I was originally already playing with that. I also find that elementally, it’s very connected to the way the play moves. It’s a very quick-paced, mercurial kind of text, and it shifts and changes very quickly as does Iago’s mind and the way he moves and it feels like water to me.

The ending and the way I used the water in the ending? I like to leave it open to debate. People have been very vocal about it. Some people really didn’t like it, and some people absolutely love it. What’s more interesting to me is what people think it means. Some people are just absolutely baffled by it and others have very clear ideas about what metaphorically it meant. I have my own ideas about it of course, but I have no interest in didactically forcing that opinion on anybody else. It’s an allegory or it’s a metaphor and it’s there to be interpreted… It’s what I felt encapsulated that moment for me in the play. The fallout from the climax and the gushing of everything emotionally and psychologically that comes forth in that fifth act.

B.B.: You can’t do Othello without addressing race, but you don’t seem to push that theme far, and in not pushing the race card as far as you could have a lot of other themes emerge like the Emilia feminist line. She was really good.

A.D.: She’s amazing, and maybe it’s because I’m a female director, but I’ve always found the female characters in this play particularly moving. People often kind of hate Desdemona – not this version though, people have I think been liking this Desdemona. I always found it unfair for people to judge the character the way they did and I don’t find historically that Emilia gets her due, as such a strong character. I guess my leaning were in that direction to explore.

I wouldn’t say that I didn’t explore the racism. I think what I did do was change the conversation a bit, so that it wasn’t necessarily racism, but it was more about ‘outsiderism’, which is definitely something that is very strong in the play and they do treat him as an outsider, and I think that the exoticism of him and the separation of him constantly creates a personna that he allows himself to engage in: the story teller, the magnificent warrior that I don’t think he really is. I think he enjoys the language and the story telling, but when it comes down to it I think the insecurity that he has being part of this kind of society that doesn’t ever really accept him is then really used by Iago to draw him out of his safe zone.

I’ve always thought of the handkerchief as being a real symbol of who he is. It’s this ellaborate, exotic, foreign item that is valued for its exoticism and its beauty, and for how different it is. Everyone wants to get it copied. Everyone wants to have a piece of it.

Apparently at the time it was actually very gauche that – if you were within the same social class as someone – to ever show your wealth as being exceeding of theirs, so the only kind of way to make yourself better than your neighbour was to find exotic items and things from far away. It was to have these little secret closet collections.

I’ve often thought of Othello as, in a way, a rarity that’s been collected from a foreign land and brought to Venice and cherished because he’s different and odd. Therefore, his actual self, his sense of real self is muted by this idea of who he is; this exoticism. He even says the way he won over Desdemona was by telling these fantastical stories most of which we know are not true. I think he identifies with that idea of being a curiosity, and he thinks that that is his value.

So then when this handkerchief, which symbolizes the same kind of thing, is so easily dismissed or given away by her, it’s like she’s giving away his identity.

 Sean Arbuckle (Iago) - Photo by Andrée Lanthier; (courtesy the Segal Centre)

The handkerchief is a symbol of who Othello really is, according to the play’s director.  Sean Arbuckle (Iago) – Photo by Andrée Lanthier; (courtesy the Segal Centre)

I feel like the play is really about sense of self and about the way that your identity can be stripped from you due to racism or whatever it may be. I think that’s what destabilizes him, not just the jealousy. Just becoming that jealous, it never really made sense to me, and it’s always a problem people have with the play. Why does he go so crazy so quickly? I feel it’s because Iago knows exactly the precision point how to attack him, and it’s with this sense of self. It’s also because Iago also his sense of self was undermined and taken away when his status as a warrior was taken from him by Othello.

Darcy-Alison2Alison Darcy is the co-founder and co-artistic director of Scapegoat Carnivale Theatre. In addition to directing, producing and teaching theatre, she has been acting professionally since childhood.  

Tickets can be purchased from the Segal Center box office, either by phone at 514-739-7944 or directly on the Segal Centre website site. Prices startfrom $24. The play runs until December 1st.

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