An Excursion to Concord to See Othello

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.

Image courtesy of National Theatre Live

“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!

Have Passport, Will Research: On the Trail of Gustav III

Meet the man who our Abbey Players all refer to affectionately as "Dr. M." Landis K. Magnuson joined the English Department at Saint Anselm around the same time as me in the late 1980's. During our years together I have watched him do astounding things as our one-man theatre operation. In his various roles as teacher, scholar, director, producer and moderator he has elevated the caliber of theatrical performance and appreciation on campus with each passing year. His reflection on his recent scholarly pilgrimage reminds us all of the passionate curiosities that inspire us to do what we do.

Landis Magnuson on Sabattical in Sweden

In many ways academic research is the very essence of what it means to be a college professor; to be a member of the “academy” and to participate in the scholarly life at Saint Anselm College. While previous research trips on my focus of circle stock theatre and Swedish-dialect characters have taken me to diverse destinations here in this vast country, for two weeks this past September my sabbatical allowed the “life of a scholar” to draw me to Denmark and Sweden.

Why Scandinavia I have been asked?  A glib retort might be “With a name like Magnuson, do I have any choice?” Simply put: more 18th century theatres can be viewed there than any region in the world, and many still have their original baroque stage machinery.

But first some backstory.

In a very real way, this is the tale of an eager young Speech Education major in a European Theatre History class way back in the mid-1970s. While studying the classic chariot-and-pole scenic system, Dr. David Clark offered up a somewhat scratchy and jumpy 16-millimeter film capturing the total scenic stage transformation, in less than a minute, of the Drottningholm Court Theatre using only wooden shafts and cylinders, ropes, and brute human force. In that moment, in a dark classroom in the Enid Miller Theatre at Nebraska Wesleyan University, a research quest was born. Someday, I vowed to myself, I will actively explore Drottningholm to experience firsthand what I had witnessed with opened-mouth wonder.

It took almost forty years, but someday finally arrived.

During my recent journey—which snaked its way from Copenhagen, across the bridge to southern Sweden, and eventually to Stockholm—I thrilled at the personalized tours I had arranged in ten major theatres, along with one major theatre archive, plus three performances at Dramaten, the state theatre of Sweden. Yet largely I was on the trail of Gustav III, Sweden’s “Theatre King” who reigned from 1771 to 1792. An accomplished stage director and author of a dozen or more plays, he founded numerous national Swedish institutions on French models: most importantly the Royal Opera (1773), the Swedish Academy (1786), and the Dramatic Theatre (1788), all of which still thrive today. And in a larger-than-life story fit best for the theatre, Gustav III was shot at the Stockholm Opera House on March 16, 1792 during a masked ball held on the stage. He died of his wounds nearly two weeks later. You couldn’t make this sort of real drama up. So they didn’t. The king’s real-life dramatic murder became the basis of Verdi’s opera, A Masked Ball.

My pilgrimage demanded that three theatres connected with Gustav III had to be explored.  My first was the Court Theatre at Ulriksdal Palace (known as Confidencen) located in Stockholm, built at the command of Gustav III’s mother Queen Lovisa Ulrika. This venue features the oldest original theatre interior in Sweden having been converted in 1753 from an indoor horseback arena dating from the 1670s.

Next came the exploration of the Drottningholm Court Theatre on a gorgeous, bright September day. Completed in 1766 and faithfully preserved in its entirety to this day, it is located just outside of Stockholm on the vast Palace grounds maintained today as the official residence of the royal family. In one of the great stories of theatrical history, this magnificent theatre was largely abandoned for 130 years following the king’s assassination until it was rediscovered in the 1920s. A “no space left unexplored” personal tour lasting nearly 2.5 hours transported me both to the 1780s and to the life of a dreaming undergraduate nearly 40 years ago. This brief clip gives you some idea of what I beheld:

Finally came the investigation of Gustav III’s private theatre that he built at the Gripsholm Palace in Mariefred (an hour or so from Stockholm)—a Renaissance castle which had beginnings over 450 years ago. Here one experienced theatre on a most intimate level that allowed only the closest of the king’s family, court, and even servants to experience theatrical productions. Sitting high in the ceiling of the venue built inside the round theatre tower, I savored the view that had been afforded to the palace’s servants since Gustav III believed that everyone should benefit from the theatre.

In all: Promise made, Promise fulfilled.