Sunday, August 18, 2013


From left: Bethany Jillard, Dion Johnstone, Graham Abbey. Photography by Don Dixon.

Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival has produced a dark and somber Othello at the Avon Theatre. Despite some shortcomings, this is an exceptionally intelligent reading of the play as directed by Chris Abraham.

Much of the success of the production rests on the conception and execution of the artistic team, namely Director Chris Abraham, Designer Julie Fox and Lighting Designer Michael Walton.

The action is played on a square, revolving and tilting platform. There are two panels at the back of the stage whose colour can be changed from red to darker hues. A scene change can be effected by revolving the platform and tilting it in a various directions. The result is fluidity and dramatic effectiveness.

On the acting side, the greatest weight usually falls on Othello with Iago close behind because he is the most interesting character. In this production, the best performance was given by Graham Abbey as the quintessentially evil Iago. Abbey is fast on his feet as well as in his wit as he abuses people while plotting the utter destruction of Othello. The lightness of touch with the murderous intent is portrayed brilliantly by Abbey.

Dion Johnstone as Othello displayed the emotional breadth of the character. He was under control in the opening scenes and acted like a capable officer. When he was taken over by insane jealousy he became raving mad. The problem with Johnstone was that he spoke in a modified Jamaican accent (perfectly acceptable) but he did not always enunciate with precision. We got Othello’s emotional turmoil but we should not be cheated of a single one of Shakespeare’s words. In this case, we were.       

Bethany Jillard makes a pretty, blonde Desdemona but she lacked the emotional depth that we expect in the final scenes. Desdemona is not a shallow woman who married the heroic Moor because of his exploits and amazing stories. She loves him for his mind as he loves her. Unfortunately Jillard gave us only the pretty Desdemona without the deep emotional upheaval that the character presents in the last scene.

Deborah Hay showed what an actor can do with a dramatic role in her portrayal of Emilia. Now there is a woman who can show rage and emotional turmoil as she lashes out at her husband and Othello.

Mike Shara has cornered the market for acting like a nice but dimwitted man. He plays Roderigo, an innocent dummy who is used by Iago and ends up bankrupt and dead. For some reason Abraham has Roderigo travel incognito from Venice to Cyprus (he emerges from a crate on arrival) and he wears a false beard presumably to conceal his identity. Shakespeare does not tell us anything about that and the production does not make the ruse clear at all.

In the opening scene of the play, Desdemona’s father Brabantio (Peter Hutt) is woken up by Roderigo and Iago in the middle of the night to be told that his daughter has run away with Othello. Brabantio appears at a “window,” an opening in the red panel at the back of the stage. We do not see that window again until the last scene when Othello strangles Desdemona. The same window is visible but now it is covered with what looks like a crest. Desdemona’s father is dead but he is still watching as his treacherous (in his view) daughter is brutally strangled. A small but wonderful connection between the first and last scenes of the play.

Othello by William Shakespeare opened on August 14 and will play in repertory until October 29, 2013 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

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