For anyone not familiar with Shakespeare’s Othello, in a very truncated nutshell, the plot is that Iago is furious about being overlooked for promotion and determines to take revenge against his General, Othello, the Moor of Venice. Iago manipulates Othello into believing his innocent wife Desdemona is unfaithful, stirring Othello's jealousy. Othello allows jealousy to consume him, murders Desdemona, and then kills himself.
Othello and Desdemona are nothing more than pawns who lose their lives needlessly in Iago’s game.
Teatr Otwarta Strefa have imaginatively taken the story forward in an extremely elegant and economically beautiful production, written and performed by Anna Rakowska and Piotr Misztela, to a point where Othello is sitting in purgatory’s waiting room expiating his sins before going to his final destiny. We immediately see that he is sitting on seat number 13, which does not augur well. The setting is a theatre or cinema, and there are definite overtones of Juliusz Slowacki’s Mazepa – Poland’s equivalent of our Macbeth in terms of superstition, and a play where blind envy also has a cruel outcome. The props are minimal, the central two being a chess game and a coat-stand cleverly puppeteered to create the presence of Iago; in life, Iago manipulated them, but now it is they who manipulate ‘Iago’.
Chess is an abstract strategy game and involves no hidden information, the two sets of players being literally black and white. Here, truth will out. There is no Emilia, no Cassio, no embroidered handkerchief and no whispered conversations to sully the facts. In life, Desdemona could not understand Othello’s coldness towards her; in death, she will know. A clock ticks as Othello comes through death and slowly recognises where he is, and there to welcome him is Desdemona, who then asks why he killed her. Othello’s memories are faint at first, as white noise on an erased video tape, but slowly unfold before him in filmic episodes. Together they piece the story.
Iago’s words taunt Othello even in death, inveigling their way into his consciousness. There is a beautiful scene where Othello sits at a chess board that is not laid out conventionally and correct order is disrupted, holding the white Queen (representing Desdemona) in his hand, struggling to understand and remember. Iago (represented by the black Knight) moves the white Queen, followed by the white Knight which is placed in ‘Protector’ position, indicating the truth of the matter. In the play, Cassio is sent to protect Desdemona as she travels. But seeds of doubt have been sown. Iago’s next move is for the white King (Othello) to illegally hover over the board - as Desdemona and Cassio are watched in the original play - before being brought to a position on the black pieces territory, where the black knight turns on him. The white King then comes to rest in a position where he and the Queen are clearly separated by the white Knight, making the betrayal seemingly obvious. Cassio and Desdemona’s pieces both moved in accordance with the legal rules of chess, but the black Knight moved first, above his rank, and created confusion. The white King was jostled from pillar to post without any consideration of the strict rules of play. I have no knowledge of Polish, but here the synopsis of Othello was told in an incredible stylish way that needed no language understanding to help it along.
The ghost of Iago is persistent and cruel, reinforcing his lies about Desdemona, until Othello becomes controlled by them, and donning Iago’s hat, bitterly humiliates her and puts money in her hand as if she is a prostitute. The white Queen is thrown from the chess board, rendering the match worthless.
The recollections stop just before the point in the play where Othello murders his wife. A light bulb moment appears to indicate that he realises that they have both been victims of a savage plot, but it is too late for reparation. The relationship cannot be saved, even in death.
Desdemona quietly takes up Othello’s line,
“Czy modliłaś się dziś wieczorem, Desdemono?
Jeśli myślisz o jakimkolwiek przestępstwie
Jeszcze nie pogodzony z niebem i łaską,
Proś o to wprost ”.
Desdemona exits the stage, knowing her own innocence, and Othello is separated from her, realising his guilt and ready to make his act of expiation. The white noise stops and the time of recollection is done.
The inevitability of it all is sad to watch.
Othello is, of course, a play through which the themes of race, the woman’s role in family and society and adultery thread like ribbons. Here, Othello is cleverly costumed with a black vest and socks, added to by a black blanket and finally Iago’s black hat as his thoughts become darker. Desdemona wears white throughout, innocent of all she is accused of. Interestingly, Iago, dressed in black from the beginning, hides behind a white mask as his manipulation becomes more sinister, perhaps symbolising the fact that this is a character who controls and is behind everything, his power emerging from his ability to pretend and put on different masks, and perhaps a warning to not allow ourselves to be fooled by the master of pretence in the play.
Teatr Otwarta Strefa’s Po Otellu is a well crafted and thought provoking study of what might happen after death comes to the characters of Othello, and I enjoyed it immensely. The music composition, ‘Timeless Thoughts’ by Jakub Kalafut was a hauntingly appropriate accompaniment to the whole.
Teatr Otwarta Strefa’s Po Otellu was shown as part of York International Shakespeare Festival 2021. The full programme of events can be seen here.
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I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from each show watched, each book read, each art work discovered and each person encountered, and I am humbled by their generosity of spirit in giving so much.