As it moves closer to the opening of Stratford Festival’s 2021 season, the North American mecca of Shakespearean theatre is continuing to connect with their audiences through a weekly free livestream of productions contained in their STRATFEST@HOME catalogue. Fans get to vote between three different titles that fall under some banner of similarity across the Bard’s repertoire, and that show is streamed live from their YouTube channel. This past week saw the company’s 2019 production of Othello, a gripping and poignantly relevant take on the legendary tale of machinations.
Directed for stage by Nigel Shawn Williams and film by Barry Avrich, the most immediate choice evident of this production is a thoroughly modern setting for their Venice. With costuming that mixes very sleek and sharp formal style with timely military garb, as well as a series of ambient soundscapes that combine with elements of trip-hop and electronica, the original world of these character’s is supplanted expertly. It takes the action of this ever-tense play and frames it in very accessible trappings.
Michael Blake smoulders as the titular paragon of stoicism, Othello. The confident gravity he exudes is a weighty balance to the chaotic world that revolves around him, and against the racist paranoia, hatred, and jealousy lobbed at him by other men throughout, this stoicism is a bittersweet display of grace for issues that still plague the world over. Blake and Amelia Sargisson show off an enviable love and devotion as Othello and Desdemona, enchanted and fully smitten with one another as they navigate their new marriage with one another. Sarigsson beams with a headstrong loyalty and optimism that holds so much more depth than the self-professed “obedience” the character brings up.
And it is these wonderfully touching qualities brought to the characters that make their downfall at the schemes of Iago all the more brutal. Gordon S. Miller’s Iago is frightening, to say the least, and so much of that palpable dread that encapsulates him comes from Miller’s precision of speech and thought. Switching from conniving calculations to pleasant advising in the same breath, steeping in his own hatred towards the successful “Moor of Venice”, there are definite connections to draw between this interpretation and today’s alt-right. Iago’s sociopathic demeanour feels as fitting for a Silicone Valley billionaire as it does for any snake-like villain.
The players and production choices are all splendid and are intimately captured in close-ups that convey aspects that couldn’t be picked up on in the same way in-room. Every piece works towards the unified goal of this steadily churning machine of foul-play.
But one particular piece stands out among the rest.
The projection design for Stratford’s Othello is magnificently effective. With a set comprised of little more than blank, black geometric structures, this obsidian canvas is shrouded in chalky etchings of ornate Venetian line work via the projector. This alone is visually impressive and is becoming a mainstay in set and light design. But the fluidity with which these textures merge and meld, blow away as dust, flare into lightning and rain, and encircle the bodies in space is, for all intents and purposes, hypnotizing. Most strikingly, the light and projection work creates a transcendent state for the soliloquies of Iago, dragging us into his mind’s vitriolic and brilliant conspiracies. If the world revolves around Othello, the audience revolves around Iago.
Stratford’s Othello does what the best modern Shakespeare productions do—it takes the action of an iconic work and highlights just what makes it timeless. The exploration of issues that still pervade political and social sphere, as well as a display of all-too-amicable and all-too-familiar evil, make this production of the classic tragedy feel all to relevant. And as long as there are still messages to learn from the Bard’s works, there will still be reason to dive into beautiful productions like this.