Professor Jennifer Thorn specializes in Eighteenth Century Literature, but her intellectual interests know few bounds and she is always seeking creative ways to engage students. The recent field trip described here is but one case in point.
“Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”
Last Monday, faculty and students in the English Department traveled up to Concord to see National Theatre Live production of Othello. I think it is safe to say that all participants loved being able to see this great show and also be “less classroomy” (in the words of student Johanna Materazzo). The production, which just closed in London, received five-star rave reviews in the British press—“a stunning portrait of a sociopath,” said the Guardian of Rory Kinnear’s Iago, and The Times declared that “Adrian Lester’s Othello … has all the dignified vulnerability one could wish.” The company’s Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner imagines the Cyprus of the play as a contemporary Iraq-like land embroiled in war. He consulted closely with a retired army general (Jonathan Shaw) to get the details of life in an army base just right—what it means to be ready to fight and somewhat bored at the same time, to live in close quarters, to be severed from life back home. Most of the play took place in barracks-like settings, complete with the sounds of helicopters, that wonderfully conveyed the claustrophobia of life on a warfront and the men’s need for release. The fight scenes were terrific—great to watch, and important in characterization and plot. This one-minute trailer gives a sense of the power of the production’s staging:
I myself always puzzle over this play; Iago’s nature and actions often don’t quite convince me as he methodically works to ruin the life of the superior who passed him over for promotion and who has been associated, in rumors, with his wife, and I sometimes struggle to buy the rapidity of Othello’s decline into violence. Adrian Lester has remarked in interviews that he sees the play as reflective not only of racism—though that certainly is there in the play, especially in Brabantio’s despair at his daughter’s marriage to Othello—but also of the vulnerability of this particular outsider to the kinds of manipulation at which Iago excels. His performance gave me new understanding of the character and made me a fan—I will look for the TV series “Hustle,” in which he starred, and note with joy that he is coming to Brooklyn in the spring to reprise his starring role in Red Velvet, written by his wife Lolita Chakrabarti, about Ira Aldridge, the black actor whose 1833 replacement of Edmund Kean in Othello at Covent Garden Theatre prompted Victorian outrage and, in time, begrudging admiration. Johanna also admired Lester’s performance, “especially near the end when Othello realizes the consequences of his actions and loses his sanity a little bit.” Professor Ann Norton, also an attendee, found this Othello stuck in her head, too—especially the line “If it were now to die / ‘Twere now to be most happy, for I fear / My soul hath her content so absolute / That not another comfort like to this / Succeeds in unknown fate.” “Sigh,” she adds.
Among us, many expressed great admiration of Rory Kinnear’s low-brow Iago (Prof. Norton liked his “Cockney swagger, the good-old-boy/ bar-regular persona he manifested”) and of Lyndsey Marshal as Iago’s wife, Emilia. In the car I drove, we all were excited by the boldness of Emilia’s turn from compliance—which, in this staging, reflects her life as a soldier in uniform as much as her status as wife—to angry denunciation of Iago’s villainy and passionate defense of her dead friend, Desdemona. Johanna says it well: this Emilia “changed from a quiet woman who took orders from her husband to a woman who followed her heart and was compassionate and spoke the truth, even when it was against her husband.” Here, Rory Kinnear and Lyndsey Marshall talk about their roles as Iago and his wife, Emilia.
I’m grateful to my colleagues and students for their wonderful company on this wonderful outing, and I hope for similar jaunts in the near future!