Cirque du Shakespeare: the Folger’s new Othello and the problem of performing Iago

The new production of Othello at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC is in many ways good fun, but it's deeply flawed and some of those problems illustrate much deeper issues inherent in the play itself. At the Folger, director Robert Richmond has basically blown (and I use that term advisedly) a huge amount of time, effort and, I'm guessing, money as well, on very elaborate special effects that make his Othello a multimedia extravaganza, even in the small space he had to work with. It's certainly a unique take on the play visually, with random contemporary influences ranging from Cirque du Soleil (of all things) to slow motion fighting sequences as originating in East Asian action movies. The problem, predictably enough, is that rather than enhancing the drama of the play, these pyrotechnics detract or at least distract from it, so that what can be a devastatingly terrifying experience becomes about as substantial as a handful of cotton candy.
Mr. Richmond has also gone to a great deal of trouble to rewrite and reorder much of the play, especially at the beginning, and I hate to break it to him, but he's not improving it. It's perfectly acceptable theatrical and literary practice to do this, of course, but one runs the risk of unfavorable comparison with something closer to the original, which in this case is unavoidable. The changes make the action harder rather than easier to follow, the characters more rather than less obscure, and in the confusion the complex psychological timeline of the play is also lost. Othello relies on a kind of double time register (as do several other Shakespeare plays), in which the diegetic timeline of the action does not correspond to what's happening psychologically within and interpersonally between the various characters. This deep structure within the play has been noted by critics since at least the middle of the 19th century, and its widespread recognition does nothing to blunt its powerful impact.
From a psychological standpoint the diegetic narrative of the play seem to careen forward with an impossible rapidity and this is crucial to subtly, and in many cases probably unconsciously, communicating to the audience a sense of a social order and lives spiraling out of control. The very first thing we see at the Folger, unfortunately, is a modestly shrouded set of images of Othello and Desdemona in a full-blown sexual encounter. This, rather than a marriage scene or merely implied news of the marriage, is what kicks off the opening argument between Iago and Roderigo. There are many ways of rationalizing this staging, of course. Is it their imaginations being manifested, etc.? But it does play merry havoc with the later lines, some of which are not removed, which suggest that this couple has not had time to have sex after they were married because Othello was immediately dispatched to Cyprus. As written, the play adds up although it operates on jarringly contradictory perceived timescales. As rewritten in this way, it doesn't.
And for all the effort and attention that was spent on the set, it seems extraordinary that the famous handkerchief that went flying around the stage of the Folger was white with an intricate black geometric pattern, quite clearly not “spotted with strawberries.” When I first saw it, I thought they would certainly remove the reference to its design in the dialogue, but amazingly they did not. It's all the more ridiculous because any piece of white cloth with red or pink splotches would have served the purpose adequately. I focus on this minor but elementary flaw in the production because of the amount of effort that was put into the rest of the set, and because this was so easy to avoid.
A quite talented cast works hard to get around all of the special effects bling with which they are smothered, especially Karen Peakes' fine performance as Emilia. But you feel for them because they are figuratively, and at times literally, weighted down with a burdensome production. And nobody suffers more than Ian Merrill Peakes, an obviously talented performer, who is left almost entirely adrift in his crucial role as Iago. I'm confident that with better direction and a more insightful, focused production, Peakes could have produced a very interesting Iago. Unfortunately, the biggest single flaw of the Folger's new production of Othello is that it has given us something I would not have thought possible: a bland and boring Iago. There's just no edge to him at all and I don't think that's the fault of the actor. The whole Cirque du Shakespeare routine just dulls the blade too much. Peakes is left with almost nothing really to work with, except repeatedly telling us how really, really, really pissed off he is. Well, so am I. Frequently. You too. So what? It's really not good enough.
There are lots of ways of playing Iago to powerful effect. Just to stick to the well-known, readily available film versions, there's Kenneth Branagh's ice-cold, steel-eyed sociopath (his best film performance to my mind); Bob Hoskins' giggling psychopath (with an emphasis on Iago's working-class consciousness as well); Micheál Mac Liammóir's slimy, aging creep; Frank Finlay's understated, reserved schemer; etc. I suppose I just listed those in a certain order of preference. But however he is interpreted, Iago must have an edge to him.
His power is not only that of a master manipulator, but also a master of language. He swings wildly back and forth between the most ornate and obscure verbiage to the most crude and direct. His often overlooked and usually cut (the Folger removed almost all of it in this production) banter with Desdemona and Emelia in Cyprus when they fear Othello may be drowned begins as risqué and playful but ends up downright obscene. That he's egged on in this “dirty talk” by Desdemona herself proves again how little her father really knows her (“a maiden never bold,” etc.). Iago's specialty is debasement, and his favorite storehouse of metaphors and imagery is the bestiary. From the outset, his tropes routinely transform people into animals, especially in order to emphasize their sensuality and sexuality in a particularly repulsive manner in order to alienate them from each other. These manipulations not only transform Othello's perceptions of Desdemona, they also transform his own command of language. Very few, if any, characters in Shakespeare's canon are such powerful poets as Othello and Iago. But when Iago is done with Othello, the eloquent speech of the orator and storyteller who won over not only Desdemona but also the Duke and his counsel with his tales of war and hardship (which Iago dismisses as “fantastical lies”) becomes choppy, convoluted, repetitive, and as fractured as his mind.
This also presents a challenge in the interpretation of Othello's own role. He can be performed as serenely calm at the outset, descending rapidly into uncontrolled and animalistic passion at the hands of Iago's “medicine,” or he can be presented from the outset as having the rough edge of a professional soldier. At the Folger, the capable Owiso Odera essentially performs the second version of Othello, rough and passionate from the outset, and this is a perfectly legitimate and common interpretation. But it misses the transformation in not only his language but his character effected by Iago's own manipulative dialogue. What it adds is the interesting prospect that Othello's marriage is more of a mismatch from the outset than might otherwise be supposed and that it is not only Iago's plotting that dooms it, but also that there really is a profound incompatibility between the couple. It's a legitimate choice, but I'm not sure the trade-off is really worth it.
The manner in which Iago is interpreted goes directly to the central problem of his character: motivation. It is a hallmark of Shakespeare's art — and one that he pioneered in a most extraordinarily innovative manner — that all characters “have their say.” They all get a chance to explain why they're doing what they're doing, even some of the most minor figures. That these explanations often reflect the human tendency to self-deception in no way undermines this achievement. For even in their delusions, as certainly could be ascribed to Othello at several key passages in the drama, particularly in the moments before he kills himself, the characters reveal much about what drives them, consciously or unconsciously. Iago alone remains an absolute cipher. The only other Shakespeare character comparable to him in villainy, Iachimo in Cymbeline, is not nearly as mysterious or threatening.
For centuries critics have grappled with this conundrum (perhaps most famously Coleridge), and argued about whether Iago has “too many” or “too few” motivations for his malevolent rampage. The “too many” school notes that he professes at least four justifications or grievances at different points in the play: 1) he has been passed over for promotion unjustly, and harbors a deep-seated class resentment against privilege; 2) he suspects both Othello and Casio of sleeping with his wife and is enraged at the thought that others do as well; 3) he wants to replace Casio as Othello's lieutenant for personal advancement; 4) he enjoys the malicious plotting a great deal (leading Coleridge to conclude that he is really driven by a desire to demonstrate his intellectual superiority and power over others).
Most critics agree that none of these motivations separately or together seem sufficient for his extreme wrath and vengefulness, and, perhaps more importantly, that they do not sit well together (there's also an easily-accessible homoerotic quality to his relationship with Othello that productions have increasingly been exploring, casting his jealousy in yet another light, but no more satisfactorily). Iago's explanations and professed outrage often seem exaggerated, especially in his opening-scene tirade to Roderigo about the injustice of his rank. The “too few” school considers all of these to be absurd rationalizations and excuses that are dismissible out of hand, and does not bother with whether or not they compliment or contradict each other. Either way at the play's close, like Othello, we are simply dying to know, "Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?" His answer is surely the most chilling moment in all of Shakespeare's work: "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know; From this time forth I never will speak word."
But of course we don't “know” anything for certain, least of all about Iago's "real" motivations. The whole play revolves around the question of how we “know” what we think we know, and the distance between what we believe and what is "true." Instances of deception abound: Desdemona deceives her father in eloping with Othello; she deceives Othello that her handkerchief is not lost; Othello almost certainly engages in a degree of deception with Desdemona and the Duke about his life's story; and Roderigo assumes “an usurped beard” metaphorically, and in many productions literally, to name but a few examples. And, of course, there is all of the self-deception alluded to above (Othello's final speech and possibly many other instances in his case, Brabantio's misreading of his daughter, Desdemona's misreading of Othello as incapable of jealousy, Emelia's almost willful blindness about her husband's villainy, etc.) But in none of these cases are motivations an absolute cipher.
Iago, by contrast, who is the author of most of what transpires during the drama, is exactly that: an enigma, an impenetrable mystery. The explanations he offers other characters and the audience directly are plainly unsatisfactory from either the “too many” or “too few” perspectives, and his absolute refusal to offer any accounting whatsoever when confronted is palpably horrifying. There is no other instance in Shakespeare's work in which the audience is invited to retreat into a facile explanation of “pure evil.” Even though Iago is plainly drawn from the stock Morality Play characters Vice and Devil, he's clearly not a simple allegory. Therefore dismissing him as inherently evil is no answer either. All other Shakespeare villains have their reasons, grievances and, usually, mitigations. Iago's refusal to offer any satisfactory accounting for himself in spite of his huge role (he is almost as much a main character as Othello and in many productions ends up having more lines) confronts the audience or the reader with the awful truth that we can never know what really prompts anyone else in their actions, no matter how extreme, and maybe never fully understand our own either.
Many commentators, including Sigmund Freud, have considered Shakespeare among the most perceptive observers of the human psyche. Perhaps this is his most horrifying insight: Iago offers no explanation at the end of Othello because he does not have one. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the character himself does not really know what drove him to these extremes. Reading Iago against the rest of Shakespeare's work, precisely because virtually all other characters “have their say,” strongly suggests this is the case. Iago is a cipher, not only to us, but to himself. What's most appalling is the implication that, all too often, we are ourselves driven by “too many” or “too few” reasons for our actions and in the end may not really know why, exactly, we do much of what we do, especially as we are doing it. It's a terrifying concept that directly attacks the ego or a fundamental sense of self-awareness with the suggestion that these are illusory constructs, and beneath them may lie an empty abyss.
This is all the more unsettling because Iago not only plays to others' sense of the animalistic within the human, he also unnervingly is the most eloquent and persuasive of all of Shakespeare's characters about the importance and power of reason. On numerous occasions he boasts that what he's saying in the course of his manipulations, whatever his intentions, makes sense or at some level constitutes genuinely good advice. These claims are uncannily hard to dismiss. His lecture to Roderigo against the thought of suicide over Desdemona is a kind of Renaissance — almost proto-Enlightenment — sermon on the power and primacy of reason: “If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions,” etc. Yet he employs appeals to reason and apparent logic in the same way he brutally attacks the reptilian brain, precisely to drive people towards "preposterous [and disastrous] conclusions." As with invocations of passion, the championing of reason is just another weapon in the arsenal of the most malevolent character Shakespeare created. And, just like our attachment to our sense of self and our egos, the human, and especially modern, faith in reason (the impact of this irony has only deepened over time) proves to be dangerously and frighteningly illusory.
For all of these effects to work fully on an audience, Iago's edginess, whatever form it might be given in any production, is crucial to the interpretation of the role. As he engages us in his playful but vicious plot, we become, to some extent, complicit in his crimes at an emotional level, no matter how horrified we are at them. Unwilling identification with Iago is essential to creating this sense of horror at the emptiness inside of him — the perfect vacuum through which his actions are propelled — with which we are confronted at the end of the play.
The one thing the Folger production gets exactly right about Iago is clearly communicating to the audience the extent to which, unlike almost all other Shakespeare villains, he has no clear plan or even fully set goal at the outset (contrast that with Richard III, for example). He's angry, and he wants revenge, but that apparently could take many forms. His plot unfolds piecemeal, constantly adapting and changing almost like a game, and he invites the audience to think things through with him in real time. At one point he is so unsure of his next move that he observes, "'Tis here, but yet confused: Knavery's plain face is never seen, till used." So not only is the motivation unclear to both us and, apparently, him, Iago's goals are shifting and negotiable, and his schemes are jerryrigged and tactical at best. There is no hint of a broader strategy at work.
Not only does this underscore Iago's fundamental hollowness, it powerfully draws the audience into the process of his plotting and implicates us as secret sharers no matter how strongly we object or resist. Or it least it should. But the bland and boring Iago presented at the Folger just doesn't give the audience enough to hook ourselves to him throughout the drama, and we end up identifying with him about as much as a viewer of the Silence of the Lambs will emotionally connect with Hannibal Lecter. It's an engaging spectacle, but not a harrowing revelation.
This production also omits one of the most telling passages in Othello, in my view, but also one of the most frequently overlooked. The second song that Iago sings during the revels, as his plot to get Cassio drunk and instigate a crisis moves steadily forward, reveals a great deal about both his own character and the deepest concerns in the drama:
King Stephen was and-a worthy peer,
His breeches cost him but a crown,
He held them sixpence all too dear,
With that he called the tailor lown.
He was a wight of high renown
And thou art but of low degree,
'Tis pride that pulls the country down,
Then take thine auld cloak about thee.
It's usually either left out of productions entirely, or raced through as a quick-paced soldiers' drinking song. This is unfortunate because, even though Shakespeare was adapting what appears to have been an already fairly well-established song usually referred to as "Bell my wife," his version is unique and in this context it neatly summarizes much of what drives the plot of Othello.
The whole scene is important for obvious reasons, but also because it shows Iago very comfortably in the role of the rough, earthy soldier. It seems to confirm his opinion of Casio as effete and Casio's of him as decidedly downmarket (“you may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar” he dismissively tells Desdemona, and on several occasions lectures Iago about his manners and breeding and the proprieties of social hierarchy). Some critics have wondered whether Iago's song is directed specifically towards Casio, to subtly critique or even annoy him in preparation for the instigated brawl. If it's intended to annoy him, it certainly doesn't seem to work, as Casio declares it “a more exquisite song than the other.” But by attacking the arrogance of privilege, it certainly works well as a critique of Casio's attitudes and fits perfectly with Iago's numerous other bitter rhetorical attacks on the wealthy and the powerful.
More than anything, though, the song is a warning about the sin of pride, which seems to be at the heart of the tragedy. The play is usually associated, and quite rightly, with patterns of jealousy, most notably Othello's own jealousy over Desdemona, but also of course Iago's almost boundless jealousy against virtually all the other characters. Both are evidently extremely ambitious, although in different ways both pretend to be simple soldiers. Iago is jealous of Casio for his promotion and his apparent higher social status. He's jealous of Othello's power and rank as well. He's jealous in fearing that both of them have slept with his wife. And he consistently and repeatedly attacks social privilege and rails at his own relatively lowly status.
But what lies behind this jealousy is pride. Othello attributes his serene (over)confidence to his pride in his achievements, his character and his allegedly royal lineage. His extreme rage depends on Iago quickly flipping this vainglorious overconfidence into unbridled panic and male hysteria, an attack on his essential masculine pride. While neither Othello nor Iago share the arrogant haughtiness of the aristocrats Brabantio, Casio and Roderigo, their pride seems to run deeper and be more brittle. Both characters appear to be driven in their extreme anger by jealousies based on attacks on their pride. It's easy to imagine a daytime TV soap opera parody of Othello with a cheesy title like “The Proud and the Damned” (by the way, the noted critic Prof. Richard Burt, author of the book "Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares," wrote the script for a porn video version of the play called "Hotel O," which I have not seen and apparently even had two sequels). At any rate, in this world pride certainly does bring the country down, and no one is satisfied with their old cloaks. Of course this all comes through anyway in the play, but the song sums up its biggest themes perfectly, if obliquely. It's a pity that it's so rarely given its due.
One can't be too tough on the Folger or Mr. Richmond for leaving the King Stephen song out, since cuts obviously have to be made for any performance and this is typically one of the earliest casualties, along with most of the “dirty talk” banter between Iago and Desdemona. And again, when it does appear, it is most frequently performed so quickly that no audience is likely to have an opportunity to gauge its deep significance. The Folger Theatre production is fun and entertaining, but it just doesn't reflect a strong grasp of the play. It does help illustrate much about Othello, but more by calling attention to these profound questions through mistakes and omissions, both common and inexplicable, rather than through presenting any insight of its own.