Thursday, October 18, 2007

"Othello": (2001) CBC-BBC Masterpiece Theatre: Review

(Directed by Geoffrey Sax; posted to Amazon US today.)

I teach "Othello" in an intro to literature course for non-liberal arts majors; it's their only chance to study literature at my college, and I find this a well-balanced counterpart to the 1995 Oliver Parker-directed film dramatization starring Laurence Fishburne & Kenneth Branagh. My students tend to prefer the "original" with Shakespeare's language to this BBC-CBC production, but I like this for the energetic gallows humor it provides. While some of my students have seen "O," made around the same time as this Masterpiece Theatre version, this is more adult, and less teenaged in its appeal. It's grimmer than "O," and moves rapidly.

The performances of not only Eamonn Andrews and Christopher Eccleston (who I enjoyed so much in Danny Boyle's "Shallow Grave" in an earlier, equally unhinged role) deserve acclaim. Cass and Desi and Lulu (=Emilia) all do well in difficult scenes, and the conflation of the Rodrigo character into the officer pressured by Jago into recanting his testimony provides a challenging example of how a modern adaptation can alter the original plot and alter characters into this admittedly manic, compressed, and entertaining version. Issues of race, gender, class, and trust all are explored efficiently; how the storyline places Desi's earlier dalliances into her now-faithful relationship with Othello again moves the story into current sexual realism and cultural mores.

Still, even if "Othello" appears to be the play that replaces (as in my textbook anthology!) "Hamlet," it cannot be glossed or streamlined. It is a tale of unrelenting deceit and unforgiving revenge. Trendy topics aside, at its dark core, Othello remains a depressing play, and the ironies and sarcasms of Jago, as with Iago, can be disheartening as you see Desi and Othello trapped. I suspect students recoil at how evil the villain is, and how, in this 2001 version, the contemporary twist at the end only seems to emphasize how our standards may have slipped even further from those of Shakespeare's cloak-and-dagger era.

A final note: the use of technology to enhance Jago's entrapment, using cameras, stalkers, the Net, tape recorders, and good old gossip, updates the story well into our own decade. Similarly, the race riot and nod to Brutus' "I have not come to praise Caesar" speech plays off Andrews' own quiet strength as well as the scene in the restaurant where he reveals his own "race card" in another episode that makes the story even more relevant to today's multicultural but still tense urban society. And, don't forget the substitute for the handkerchief: a nimble plot device! I daresay this improves on the original-- many of my students have a hard time "believing" the awkward manner in which the Bard drops the handkerchief into the storyline!

(Image: Desi's final romp with Othello, courtesy of

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