Othello, a tale from the American Civil War

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)
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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The fun of Serpents and Shylocks and Moors and Poe

Daniel J. Rowe

Christopher Moore’s menage of Othello, Merchant of Venice and the Cask of Amontillado  is so much dang fun that it would smite my place as a bard brawler not to recommend picking the book up and diving in. Just beware of sea monsters.

Christopher Moore gets from the Bard to Poe to a sea serpent in style in the Serpent of Venice
Christopher Moore gets from the Bard to Poe to a sea serpent in style in the Serpent of Venice

The story begins with three men waiting in Venice for a fool to arrive. The plot is laid for them to off the fool, so they can proceed to reap the bounteous fortunes that await them. They even took care of the monkey. One poisoning later, and the Fool is chained to a wall and being sealed in brick-by-brick by the father of the his sister-in-law. Ba-da-bing and we just got from William Shakespeare to Edgar Allen Poe and we’re only in the second chapter.

And the sea snake hasn’t even showed up!

Christopher Moore’s The Serpent of Venice is a great read that thumps from cover-to-cover with the funny, clever, sometimes really gross rhythm welcome on any Bard Brawler’s shelf.

The book follows the Fool (King Lear’s fool), as he wanders through a Venice haunted by a sea creature that does dirty things to the Fool and deadly things to those you want deadly things done to. The serpent is one of the few characters Shakespeare did not have in either of the plays the plot follows, but I’m sure the bard would have welcomed her presence. At least I hope he would.

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story kicks the story off, and the rest of the novel follows the plots of Othello and Merchant of Venice more or less with a cameo from Marco Polo.

Okay, now you’re showing off Moore.

The book is the ultimate response to the comment, “I want to read Shakespeare, but I don’t understand what’s going on.” The book is simple to follow, and incredibly fun. Iago, Othello, Antonio, Jessica, Shylock and Lorenzo are all there, and Moore is damn clever in twisting the plots together so it reads like one clear novel about a poor Fool trying to avenge the murder of his wife Cordelia? Yep, Lear’s youngest married the Fool in the end. Why not? The speeches are there, as is a general commentary on the plot lines complete with modern swears, sexiness and a bit with a monkey.

Moore also does what all who watch Shakespeare plays secretly want to do: scream at the characters and question their motivations. Why can’t enough be enough Macbeth? Why do you have to think so much Hamlet? Or as the Fool says to Othello in Moore’s book:

Fine. So you would accuse your lady of being untrue – your lady, who did throw all of Venice away for you, stood up to the most powerful men in the republic, for you, Moor,; she you would accuse, without any evidence but the comment of another, yet Iago, who you know to be a villain, a cutthroat, and a traitor – for him you need proof beyond my word? Respect my judgement in this, Othello, if in nothing else, or thou art a fool.

Yeah Othello. Think before you act.

The book also cleverly works in the soliloquies and famous lines from each play ad-libbing here and there, and adding reaction from other characters so that even those who don’t know a lick of Shakespeare will give that, ‘huh. I’ve heard that somewhere,’ or better yet, an ‘oh. I get it now.’

The Serpent of Venice was a joy to read. It adds the flare and seduction of the Bard with the page-turning joy of a clever modern fantasy tale. And how can you not be happy to read what happens to Lorenzo. I’m always sad when I hear sweet music indeed, Jessica. Boom.

The joy of reading Shakespeare is not always an easy sell, and so it’s a pleasure when someone like Moore comes along and makes it come off so easily.

I feel like Moore would be a great bard brawler, and thus could do nothing but commend him for his efforts with the Serpent of Venice. Those students struggling through either Merchant of Venice or Othello would do well to pick up a copy of Moore’s book, and you’ll be well on your way. Of course, you could always just listen to the Bard Brawl podcast, and that would do just as well. Either way.


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Othello (1981), Jonathan Miller (director)

Daniel J. Rowe

It’s always sad when a bard legend leaves us. Unfortunately for us youngins’ we will simply have to suck it up and get used to it, as the legends who brought us great stage performances since the 60s are turning 70, 80 and 90.

So it goes, as another great writer once put it. So it goes.

Bob Hoskins has 114 acting credits to his name, and he played arguably the greatest villain in all of Shakespeare, Iago. It was in the BBC’s 1981 production of Othello. Wanna Watch? Full version below.

That was fun. You’re welcome.

First off, the makeup.

I’ll admit, it takes a second and a little swallowing of appropriateness when Anthony Hopkins (not Moorish) steps on camera as the Moor, Othello. Othello has been portrayed in a number of ways with some actors going full on blackface (always a ‘treat’), some producers amping up the orientalist look (still not completely appetizing), and some productions getting a black actor to play it. The last choice is the best to be sure, but some of the others are not all bad. Are Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier or Paul Scofield racist for wanting the best role or maybe just arrogant to think that they can pull it off?

Pick another part guys. Hey! Why not Iago?

That being said, Hopkins is very good in this Othello. He travels the gauntlet that is the role, and encapsulate the power of the tragedy. He works well alongside the other impressive talent in this play, and is great on-screen with Hoskins.

Speaking of which.

(Hey! Hopkins and Hoskins. That’s fun)

Iago is one of the most complicated and important roles in all of Shakespeare, and if you miscast the sadistic murdering villain, the production’s doomed. Just ask Kenneth Brannagh (Actually, don’t ask. he won’t admit he was the wrong choice. It’s best not to ask).

Hoskins is able to nail the key question about Iago: why does anyone like/believe him? The answer is in the performance. Hoskins is blunt, crude, and a little nasty, but not in the way any of those friends you know you have are. It’s that bluntness and hamminess that allows Iago to throw the other characters off his scent, so he can mess with them and litter the stage with bodies.

That, and the verbal missiles he fires through the fourth wall are great.

Take Act V, scene i, the scene where all of Iago is on display.

Hoskins will be missed as an actor for simply being able to pull of this scene. He, as Iago, first manipulates Roderigo into doing something he’s not entirely sure he wants to do, then laughs at his plan, then realizes he might get found out, decides to kill Cassio, actually kills Roderigo, tears his shirt in two to help mend Cassio (everyone totally buying the act), blames Bianco for being a strumpet and has her carted off, and then nails this killer line:

This is the night that either makes me, or foredoes me quite.

…And scene.

Man this play is great.

It’s worth the three hours to watch Hoskins in this scene. He uses his whole body, and can deliver so much expression with his face. It’s really quite a performance, and he hasn’t even killed his wife yet.

The rest of the cast is also very good.

Just before Act V,i, check out Penelope Wilton (yes Isobel Crawley to those Downton Abbey devotees (poor Matthew)) nail the heartbreaking IV,iii all while being stared at by a skull. Very good.

Sheesh this play is intense.

Oh, and then there’s the final scene. Not to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen the play or movie version, but let’s just say the final line is not, “all in all it was a really weird trip to Cyprus.”

Demand me nothing; what you know, you know:

From this time forth I will never speak word.

– Iago.

Rest In Peace Bob Hoskins (1942-2014).

You will be missed.

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.

This Othello is Not Airtight but it Does Hold Water

Eric Jean

The Segal Center‘s production of Scapegoat Carnivale Theatre‘s Othello is a version of Shakespeare’s play in which the humours of the rain and sea seem to mirror the tempest at the heart of Othello.

Taking their cue from Othello’s accusation that Desdemona is “false as water,” Alison Darcy (director) and Joseph Shragge (dramaturgy) created a version of Othello which highlights the watery imagery which permeates Shakespeare text.

Andrew Moodie (Othello) - Photo by AndrÇe Lanthier
Andrew Moodie is Othello at the Segal Centre. Currently playing. Photo by Andrée Lanthier

As they describe, “water is present in the geography and language” throughout the play in the canals of Venice, the sea at Cyprus, the hypnotic currents of Othello’s storytelling and of course in Desdemona’s tears. This is foregrounded in this production in the ongoing sounds of waves and rainstorms and in the flickering blue light which submerges us in the same dramatic depths as the action taking place on stage.

The bare and unadorned dramatic space is used to great effect. The traditional Renaissance rapier-and-dagger sword fights were greatly appreciated by this Shakespeare and D&D nerd.

The staging of the final act of the play is particularly striking as a drape drops and hangs from the ceiling, serving triple duty as bed covering, curtain and murder weapon. A chilling portrayal of one of Western drama’s most famous homicides.

Despite this strong staging, the play does suffer from uneven acting at times.

As Othello, Andrew Moodie often lacked intensity and presence. In the first scene, when Othello is discovered by Brabantio and his men, Othello admonishes both his men and Brabantio’s to “Keep up [their] bright swords.” However, the delivery of the passage seemed flat, without conviction. While he did deliver some admirable performances at time – the seizure scene in act III springs to mind as particularly noteworthy – Moodie seemed to be searching for his character at various times throughout the play.

Moodie with
Moodie with Sean Arbuckle as Iago. Photo by Andrée Lanthier (courtesy the Segal Centre)

In contrast, Amanda Lisman quickly found her character and, particularly after the first act, delivered a strong performance as Desdemona. However, Julie Tamiko Manning, in the role of Emilia, was one of the stand-out roles of the evening.

Sean Arbuckle’s Iago was also excellent, switching seamlessly between counselling Roderigo to keep sending him money, implanting his poisonous suggestions into Othello’s psyche and playing at being just one of the boys with Cassio.

Maurice Podbrey offered a commanding performance as Brabantio in act I but Paul Hopkins’ Montano was, in my view, the weakest member of the company and made one thankful that he had only a minor part.

Amanda Lisman (Desdemona) Julie Tamiko Manning (Emilia) _ Photo by AndrÇe Lanthier.jpg
Amanda Lisman (Desdemona) Julie Tamiko Manning (Emilia). Photo by Andrée Lanthier

While the synergy between Iago and Othello seemed forced at times, the exchanges between Iago and Cassio, as well as those between Emilia and Desdemona, were not only inspired but made the Shakespearean verse seem as natural to the ear as everyday speech. Fortunately, Moodie and Lisman seemed well-matched as husband and wife and if this Othello failed to convince that he could command armies, he could at least persuade that he could charm Desdemona’s heart.

One of the most successful scenes of the production took place in act IV, scene 3 between Emilia and Desdemona. Emilia and Desdemona’s conversation about the infidelities of men, delivered so matter-of-factly by Julie Tamiko Manning and Amanda Lisman only a few moments before Othello arrives in the bedroom, perfectly captures and prepares the tragedy which is about the follow.

Despite its’ imperfections, this production of Othello remains a very successful staging of Shakespeare’s text and one definitely worth seeing.

Or why not offer the gift of jealousy and murder for the holidays this year?

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 start from $24. The play runs until December 1st.

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