Star wattage backed up by first-rate acting gives Sam Gold’s production of Othello a must-see status. Indeed, one suspects that without the celebrity power, Shakespeare’s rarely staged tragedy might have taken even longer to reappear on the boards. (John Douglas Thompson gave a superb interpretation in a traditional production back in 2009, although there is currently a rap version, Othello: The Remix, playing in midtown.)
If Gold sometimes makes odd choices in casting and setting, he has assembled an array of fine actors to rivet one’s attention, starting with his two stars: David Oyelowo, best-known for playing Dr. Martin Luther King in the film Selma, in the title role, and Daniel Craig, also best known for his film work, as Iago, who plots against him.
Oyelowo embodies the Moor with commanding eloquence and passion. Though the leap to anguished jealousy is a bit too sudden, and the ability of Iago to dupe him still sparks one’s disbelief, Oyelowo still draws sympathy and builds the emotions to tragic heights at the climax. Lying in bed next to Desdemona, whom he has just killed, and confronted by Emilia, he has an expression like that of an animal caught with something that instinct tells him he shouldn’t have. It’s a daring moment, allowing the bestial side of the hero to show through, but it’s consistent with Oyelowo’s expertise throughout.
Craig, in the showier part of Iago, employs a rougher, working-class accent than James Bond, and he handles the language clearly and authoritatively. Gold has him move among the audience, delivering some speeches from the steps next to viewers, and Craig makes the most of the showier role yet never seizes the center, but shares it—which is a good thing.
In addition, there is an astonishingly assured Cassio from Finn Wittrock, who makes one eager to see what his Hamlet would be like. Throughout, the acting—apart from Glenn Fitzgerald’s Brabantio, who bellows and bludgeons the verse with pauses after every three or four words—is exceptional.
The modern-dress production features costumes by David Zinn that draw heavily on khaki and olive drab. Cell phones, M-16s and a weight bench all contribute to the contemporary feel. Jane Cox begins the production in darkness; her later lighting often relies on white, red or green lights casting an eerie glow.
In this modern setting, some lines take on fresh meaning. The hero’s order to “keep up your bright swords” becomes a metaphor for turning off flashlights. When Rachel Brosnahan’s independent-minded Desdemona prepares for her last bedtime, and she says, “Unpin me here,” it refers not to her modern clothing, which doesn’t require Emilia’s help to slip off; it’s an instruction to undo the cornrows in her hair.
Despite minor smart flourishes, a modern-day military is a thoroughly integrated institution, so Othello’s isolation by his race in the Venetian republic loses persuasiveness. More seriously, Gold has cast a black actress—Marsha Stephanie Blake, a capable verse speaker—as Emilia. That particularly undermines the Act IV scene when Emilia swears that Desdemona is true: “I durst, my lord, wager that her soul is honest,/Lay down my soul at stake.” If Othello cannot believe the one person whom he might trust because of their shared race, it makes him seem even stupider in a play where archaic obsessions with chastity, cuckoldry and filial obedience are already obstacles to a viewer’s credence. It also makes Roderigo’s calling Othello “thicklips” in front of Iago, Emilia’s husband, unusually dense, given that Roderigo needs Iago’s help. And what of Iago’s indifference to the slur on his wife’s looks?
It’s not the only instance where credibility goes out the window. Desdemona’s famous handkerchief embroidered with strawberries—also called a “napkin”—is a distracting scarf here. It’s absurd that anyone would grab it to wipe away sweat or tears, and it’s a kente pattern that clearly hasn’t got a strawberry on it. And despite Emilia’s claim that Desdemona “let it drop by negligence,” she clearly stole it.
More clumsily, although set designer Andrew Lieberman has covered the walls and ceiling of New York Theatre Workshop in plywood to resemble a rough-hewn barracks, the sense of place is often muddy, notably in the final scene. Cassio, stabbed elsewhere, is barely strong enough to crawl to Desdemona’s deathbed, yet he is miraculously in the bedchamber. How did he drag himself there from where the attack took place? How is it that nobody has helped him, let alone seen him?
There’s a lot of questionable logic in Gold’s production, but the performances override the bumps. It’s not an ideal Othello, but it is one worth visiting.
Shakespeare’s Othello plays through Jan.18 at the New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th St., between the Bowery and Second Avenue). For ticket information and times, telephone the box office at (212) 460-5475 or visit nytw.org.