Othello is the ultimate story of doomed love, passion and revenge, and is a story that has been reworked by many producers, writers and directors. One such production is the 1997 Royal Shakespeare Company play titled “Othello”, directed by Michael Attenborough. The production was presented at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford. Throughout it, Attenborough portrays his interpretation of the turbulent tragedy via the communication of the plot and characters that make up the production, lighting and sound techniques, as well as the central themes in it.
The play is set in the Edwardian period in the early twentieth century, and opens with Othello standing in the midst of a racist British colonial military camp. The unique context – ‘a militaristic world’ according to Logan, is thus suggested from the beginning. Furthermore, from looking at a number of photos that were taken of the production, it was clear that Attenborough’s play was presented in a very large theatre. There was also one review which said that because of the large, a very big cast was used.
Lois Potter suggests that because the production relied on spectacle, ‘it was largely through visual rather than verbal means that it achieved poetic quality’. Attenborough presented characters like Desdemona and Bianca very much the same as they are in the actual play. However his portrayal of two of the main characters, Othello and Iago is interesting. For example, one critic of the production suggested that Othello was portrayed as ‘the crippled lover’ rather than the unpolished soldier.
Attenborough constantly draws attention to Othello’s infatuation in Desdemona while his heroicness and strength are dealt with to a much lesser extent. His weakness was further intensified by the fact that the actor who played Othello, Ray Fearon was only thirty-one years old thus portraying an Othello who was, according to Michael Neill, ‘too young’. According to Hole, ‘never have I seen Othello’s weakness and vulnerability so well exposed’. The effect of this is that other characters are even more oblivious to Iago’s wickedness, because Othello’s superiority as the Moore of Venice is not as highly regarded.
Brabantio, a prominent citizen and landowner of Venice as Desdemona’s father is another character dealt with very differently. He plays an integral part in the development of Iago’s plan to destroy Othello. Through the quote, “Look to her Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father and may thee” Brabantio is revealed as a man who has lost all faith and trust in his daughter. In the production he is just as involved at manipulating Othello as Iago is.
Furthermore, in contrast to the written play, Iago is actually a well-spoken soldier who has genuine prospects. However, the director demonstrated Iago’s evilness when at the end of the senate scene; Iago spun the globe making the stage completely dark. Sounds of thunder were also hears. It has been suggested that Attenborough used these lighting and sound techniques to symbolise Iago as the devil. From reading about this production, it became evident that many audience members very critical of the fact that the focus of the play seemed to be on Iago, rather than Othello.
According to Neill, ‘the disproportionate space devoted to Iago in nearly all reviews left little doubt that this had once again become Iago’s play’. By giving so much stage time to Iago and by making him appear much more powerful than Othello in ways that were already mentioned before such as age and appearance, Attenborough’s particular focus of the play was on Iago. The plot remained largely the same and reflected the universal themes of Shakespeare’s Othello such as love, revenge and trust. However, a theme the director paid much attention was racism.
Even though this is a central issue dealt with in the actual play, it is reinforced in this production because the actor who played Othello, Ray Fearson was the first black man to play Othello since 1959. We are witnessed to this theme through a numerous quotes of Iago which furthermore present his evilness towards Othello. “Even now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”, Iago uses this quote to influence Brabantio not to like Othello and also calling him a “Barbary Horse”. In conclusion, like many other stage directors and film producers have done, Attenborough added his own “personal touch” to his 1999 production.
Not only did he set the play in an entirely different context, but he focused primarily on the character of Iago, and cast a young, Jamaican actor to portray the character of Othello. However, while his production was unique because of these things, it is extremely important to remember that even though the numerous productions of the tragic and turbulent “Othello” are unique in many ways, most of them are common in that they still portray the key, universal issues such as love and revenge, of Shakespeare’s play.