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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: April ::
Re: RNT Othello
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0363  Saturday, 18 April 1998.

[1]     From:   Patricia Cooke <
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        Date:   Saturday, 18 Apr 1998 09:01:30 +1200
        Subj:   RNT Othello

[2]     From:   Tanya Gough <
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        Date:   Saturday, 18 Apr 1998 14:47:49 -0400
        Subj:   RNT Othello

[3]     From:   Shaul Bassi <
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        Date:   Sunday, 19 Apr 1998 00:54:21 +0200
        Subj:   SHK 9.0360: OTHELLO at BAM


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Patricia Cooke <
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Date:           Saturday, 18 Apr 1998 09:01:30 +1200
Subject:        RNT Othello

We have just had the Royal National Theatre production of Othello here
in Wellington and I am posting a copy of the open letter my organisation
sent to the Director of RNT Trevor Nunn, in the light of general
disappointment at the overall standard of audibility, in reply to David
Levine and Bill Cain. I apologise for length.

An open letter to the Directors of the Royal National Theatre and the
production of Othello

"Acting is the art of stopping people coughing" Anon

Dear Trevor Nunn

Your production of Othello at the recent International Festival of the
Arts here in Wellington New Zealand was eagerly anticipated.  Theatre is
very popular in this city and Shakespeare's plays are always attractive
especially among the young, who are actively involved in annual
Shakespeare Festivals through their schools (and our Centre).  The
prestigious name of the Royal National Theatre was also a draw (although
many people thought you were the RSC).

Unfortunately, yes, it has to be said, the general overall response was
one of great disappointment.

This was because of the speed and inaudibility of the speech from the
actors (except Trevor Peacock and Clifford Rose).  This may have been as
the production was originally directed for the Cottesloe which I know to
be 300+/- seats and with a thrust stage.  It was therefore a chamber
performance which did not sit well in the large proscenium arch theatre
here - and in other places, too, I guess.

I know that time and money may have made it impossible for it to be
restaged to suit the venues, but we felt a bit cheated.  Surely the
actors and stage manager could have taken the situation in hand
themselves?  Perhaps the actors had been playing for so long to
audiences for whom English was a second (or third) language that they
felt that distinguishable words were not worth bothering about.  Perhaps
you didn't know that we speak English here in New Zealand - well, sort
of.  Even the very best actor, Simon Russell Beale, appeared to be
trying to break the world-speed record for Shakespeare, which meant that
most people who did not know the play well were left behind - and cross
about it.  I felt that his performance as Iago made the whole thing
worth seeing and many agreed with me, but there was always the added
feeling that the rest should have been much, much better.

The whole play was remote, staged upstage, much along the back wall and,
with open spaces on each wing, the sound simply dissipated into thin
air.  I went twice, opening night in the gallery which is very hot and
stuffy but where the acoustic is better, and on the last night in the
front stalls where I could hear everything, but the weaknesses of the
production (and, I hate to say, some of the cast too) were even more
obvious.  Even then some people in the stalls left at half time saying
they could not hear.

I know that in many cases this means that audiences do not listen and
are not attuned to the fullness and eloquence of Elizabethan language,
but surely it is the purpose of tours such as yours to change this
attitude rather than confirm it.

Many people go to the theatre only when something prestigious arrives
and if they are disappointed by it, vow never to go to anything again,
leaving the local theatres in an even more parlous state than they are
already.  For this you must take some responsibility.

Yours in sorrow
Patricia Cooke

PS I was personally very distressed to hear the actors' comments about
the new Globe Theatre at a forum at the NZ Drama School.  They felt it
was "a worthless experiment" and, I quote, "actors have nothing to learn
from it".  I beg to differ, having been to the Globe three times and
been inspired as never before by the familiar play Henry V becoming so
much a physical part of me and everyone else in that magical and
acoustically perfect building.  All actors can benefit from working
there - if the Globe could use them."

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tanya Gough <
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Date:           Saturday, 18 Apr 1998 14:47:49 -0400
Subject:        RNT Othello

Funny, but what Bill Cain found understated to a fault, I found subtlety
sinister and ultimately well conveyed.  I found Iago's detachment more
frightening for its chilliness (note the moment when Emilia claims an
embrace as reward for stealing the handkerchief and is met with frozen
repugnance), and I tended to see great versatility in a stark set - a
set which used its beige tonality to function as a blank canvas on which
scenes were painted.  The addition of a wicker chair, an oriental rug
and throw pillows evoked exotic luxury, slated panels doubled as windows
or doors, a wooden table and canvas chairs were well suited the
stringency of military activities.  Cain objects to Othello's beauty -
but surely his virility is part of the attraction he holds for
Desdemona.  I had rather more problems with his ability to carry the
part: his entrance was masterful, commanding and resonated throughout
the hall, but he soon lost that sense of center stage.  I've always felt
that Othello should be a man of unquestionable power, and Desdemona a
woman of great passion (albeit naive and unaware of her own power).
Also, I disagree with Cain's comments about racism: Iago's self loathing
is primary, and all else grows from it.  His disgust at Othello is
matched by his disgust for Emilia, but I tend to think his involuntary
retching came from within.

Tanya Gough

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Shaul Bassi <
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Date:           Sunday, 19 Apr 1998 00:54:21 +0200
Subject: OTHELLO at BAM
Comment:        SHK 9.0360: OTHELLO at BAM

I agree with Bill Cain when he suggests that the RNT Othello reinforces
racial stereotypes. I saw the production in London last summer and
having worked extensively on the history of Othello's ethnicity I was
literally shocked to see David Harewood (Othello) beating on his chest
Tarzan-like after killing Desdemona. My impression is that the show
succumbs to such stereotypes only because it tried to evade the racial
issue, which, inevitably, has surfaced anyway. Whether one likes it or
not, the racial issue is too much part of our zeitgeist  (at least in
the US and England, much less so in Italy where the most recent
production was extremely, if undeliberately, racist) to efface it from
any performance of Othello.

Shaul Bassi (Venice, near the Sagittary)
 

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