Othello, a tale from the American Civil War

22 Jul

Kathleen Rowe

Having never seen or read Othello, and only using Iago as a crossword answer for ‘villain’ I was intrigued to find out just what this Shakespeare play, written when he was at the top of his form, was all about.

The Bard on the Beach production of Othello is set in 1864, towards the end of the American Civil War and it fits perfectly with the underlying theme of racism which is evident throughout the play.

Even though Othello has been promoted to Union Army General, he is treated with suspicion and has to wed Desdemona secretly has her father, Brabantio would not approve.

“Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe,”
  – Iago

In the 1600s people with dark non-white skin were put in cages an displayed in the town square as curiosities. Even though the Union Army were fighting for emancipation in the Civil War there was still an acceptance of slavery and racism throughout the north and south.

Kayvon Kelly as Iago, in his fourth season of Bard, was very compelling, and a strong presence on stage. Indeed the play lagged a little when he wasn’t on stage. You could always feel his loathing for Othello.Photo 3_0

Othello was an imposing character but easily duped by the cruel Iago.

Why does he “Hate Othello?” It was stated with great vehemence more than once. Iago’s racism is at times very overt and other times subtle and poisonous.

Was it because Othello is black, or is he truly jealous?

It’s part of what makes the play so fascinating, Iago so delightfully evil, and Othello so utterly tragic.

Iago was both jealous and racist and felt passed over as Othello had chosen Cassio as his lieutenant

Even the handkerchief that Iago uses to spur jealousy in Othello was said to have special powers instilled from Othello, as if there was ‘black magic’ involved.

The death scene was a little weak and some members of the audience were even laughing although I could not see the humour in it. It kind of showed that Othello’s character, played by Luc Roderique, was not as strong as Iago although his physical presence on stage was imposing (tall and dark).

Director Bob Frazer says “by setting Othello during the American Civil War, we are shining a light on what many suspect to be the beginning of the new, deep-seated and subtle racism in North America.”

Frazer has been at Bard on the Beach since playing Hamlet in 2005. Since graduating from Studio 58 he has amassed almost 100 theatrical credits both as a director and actor.

He feels Shakespeare’s Othello is a “timeless story that moves audiences on a personal level, all while creating some of the most memorable characters in his canon.”

Luc Roderique (Othello) & Kayla Deorksen (Desdemona) OTHELLO, 2016 Bard on the Beach Photo: David Blue

Luc Roderique (Othello) & Kayla Deorksen (Desdemona)
OTHELLO, 2016
Bard on the Beach
Photo: David Blue

The folk and instrumental music used throughout the play captured the patriotic fervor of the Civil War and the mournful ballads brought the themes of slavery, loyalty and love to life. Costumes were authentic to the period as well.

A well done and timely Shakespeare experience!

As always, we have to ask ourselves: would the bard approve of this production?

Yes! Forsooth he would!


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