Rotary and the YMCA have much to answer for. Just as much as their inter-school Shakespeare competition has been the cradle of local English theatre these many years—witness, for example, its illustrious graduates in this production’s cast—it has also wrought the tragic dumbification of Shakespeare for Sri Lankan audiences. Othello says, before he dies: “Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate / Nor set down aught in malice.” If only they’d listened, instead of being lured into the chimerical quest of improving Shakespeare. The pity of it, Iago, the pity of it.
This production of Othello—at the Lionel Wendt through Sunday—begins with a puppet show. Othello, Desdemona and Cassio sway sinuously, surrounded by svelte sybils in silver and sable, as Iago, demonically, pulls their strings. What Shakespeare omitted, Royal supplies. That Shakespeare’s subtleties should be subject to such simplification shouldn’t surprise—the kids at “Shakes” have done it for years. One thought the adults would have known better. Instead, what one gets in an otherwise decent production are some jarring gimmicks that mar the play.
Take, for instance, the catastrophic miscalculation of starting off with the “It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul” speech. We are given Othello at the height of his anguish, his spirit broken by Iago’s machinations but his heart tearing at his murderous resolve. It is the peak of the play. Shakespeare knew what he was doing by keeping it to the very end. Serving it first up is like dishing out the main course before the appetiser, the soup, the salad and the sorbet. It does not wash down well, and it robs the play—and poor Othello himself—of the climax to build towards.
The magic of Othello is in watching this rank outsider, having worked his way to the very pinnacle of Venetian society, slowly disintegrate. The play’s structure facilitates this admirably—Othello appears to us midway through the first act as a man “of royal siege”, a man of stature and moment, capable of freezing a fight with his words, claiming to be “rude in his speech” but holding us spellbound with his tales. In the space of just two scenes he is established—it takes three more acts to tear him down. By first showing us the rubble he is to become, this production robs his edifice of its glory.
Another mistake is the eliding of the scene where Emilia gives Iago Desdemona’s handkerchief. Instead of an exchange that provides key psychological insights to the workings of this strange marriage, we get the sybils. They flutter, snatch and whip ever-larger pieces of cloth from one to another, until—well, to be honest, I missed it in the flurry. The net impact is more drastic—Emilia, straining by the end to elaborate this elision and expose Iago’s perfidy, achieves a hammy, ear-splitting hysteria. Although this matches the ridiculous overacting of Brabantio, Roderigo and several extras earlier on, it destroys what was shaping up to be a creditable performance.
But enough cavils. Though dumbed down and robbed of its thrusting pulse, this Othello is by no means a bad production. Sterling performances intermingle with dross, but shine so bright they transcend. Desdemona is played with a rare grace and intelligence; Iago is richly interpreted; Othello intermittent; Cassio provides able support. The clarity of speech is excellent; the acting slick in stages. Despite its many flaws, this is a play worth watching. It’s not like we get much Shakespeare in Colombo anyway.
Now, if only they'd avoided the lure...