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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: April ::
Playing Iago
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0187  Monday, 27 April 2009

[1] From:   John W Kennedy <
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     Date:   Saturday, 25 Apr 2009 16:19:31 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

[2] From:   Alan Pierpoint <
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     Date:   Saturday, 25 Apr 2009 17:47:16 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

[3] From:   Peter Groves <
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     Date:   Sunday, 26 Apr 2009 08:56:29 +1000
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

[4] From:   Lynn Brenner <
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     Date:   Saturday, 25 Apr 2009 19:06:52 EDT
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

[5] From:   Paul Hebron <
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     Date:   Saturday, 25 Apr 2009 22:20:13 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

[6] From:   Louis Swilley <
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     Date:   Sunday, 26 Apr 2009 06:24:36 -0700 (PDT)
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

[7] From:   Mike Shapiro <
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     Date:   Sunday, 26 Apr 2009 22:12:29 -0700
     Subj:   RE: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       John W Kennedy <
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Date:       Saturday, 25 Apr 2009 16:19:31 -0400
Subject: 20.0181 Playing Iago
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

It is notorious that Iago is even harder to understand than Hamlet. 
Because it is difficult or impossible to find a "right" Iago, it is 
correspondingly difficult to find a "wrong" one. But I imagine an actor 
who attempted to use Boito's view of Iago would fail. The interpretation 
of the character as a conscious nihilist is good for opera, which 
demands a certain clarity in each character's motivation (and the Iago 
created by Boito and Verdi is regarded as one of the great operatic 
roles), but, if offered as an interpretation of actual Shakespeare, 
might be, I think, an offense under the Trades  Description Act.

See, in particular, 
<URL:http://www.aria-database.com/translations/otello01_credo.txt >.

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Alan Pierpoint <
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Date:       Saturday, 25 Apr 2009 17:47:16 -0400
Subject: 20.0181 Playing Iago
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

Years ago I saw a stage actor play Richard III and Iago within the span 
of two or three years, the former most entertainingly and the latter 
pretty much the same -- archly, with a see-how-wicked-I-am wink at the 
audience. It worked with Richard -- the role invites an amused, 
self-referential interpretation  -- but I felt that it trivialized the 
role of Iago. The character is just evil; the usual explanations of 
racism and resentment about being passed over just don't account for his 
evilness. Most of us accumulate, in our own minds, reasons for 
resentment as we get to Iago's age, or Shakespeare's age (I'll be 60 in 
June), but aren't tempted over to the dark side, except in the world of 
fantasy, and that's perhaps where Iago's appeal comes in. He objectifies 
a part of us that we rightly fear and suppress, that truly dark side 
that gets pleasure from the pain, or death, of other human beings; the 
side that would just love to get even for a lifetime of slights, real or 
imagined. The actor playing Iago should play him as though he (actor and 
character) were a budding serial killer who, fortunately, gets caught 
the first time through, someone who, contemporary events aside, 
deserves, if anyone does, the brave punishments he's apparently going to 
get. -Alan Pierpoint

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Peter Groves <
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Date:       Sunday, 26 Apr 2009 08:56:29 +1000
Subject: 20.0181 Playing Iago
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

Jack Heller asks "are there ways of playing Iago so ill-conceived (based 
on observation or experience) that no actor could make it work?". This 
is based merely on anecdote, but in the 1930s Olivier once played the 
part as motivated by repressed homoerotic desire for Othello. The idea 
was apparently so alien that not even Olivier could make the motivation 
intelligible, even to Ralph Richardson's Othello. Of course, it might 
work quite well nowadays.

Peter Groves

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Lynn Brenner <
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Date:       Saturday, 25 Apr 2009 19:06:52 EDT
Subject: 20.0181 Playing Iago
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

There's an old story, probably apocryphal, about a 19th century 
actor-manager who puts on a production of 'Othello' to tour the 
provinces, playing the title role himself.

In the first town they play, Iago gets all the notices.

The actor-manager, much put out, replaces him with a less talented actor.

But in the next town, Iago again gets all the notices.

The actor-manager grinds his teeth, dismisses him and hires a still less 
competent Iago.

To no avail: in the third town, Iago once more gets the notices.

The actor-manager sees the light. He fires the actor playing Iago, and 
takes the role himself.

The point of course is that this is almost always Iago's play. (He is 
essentially the onstage director of the play; and we are his 
confidantes. Those are huge advantages.)

But he can be badly played: I know someone who said he'd seen one Iago 
"you wouldn't trust even to mail a letter for you."

Another problem: it's a rare production in which the actors playing 
Othello, Iago, and Desdemona are equally good. When it happens, it's 
dazzling. A case in point: the all-too-brief run of the recent 'Othello' 
at the Theater for A New Audience in New York. A marvelous production, 
and one not stolen by Iago.

Lynn Brenner

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Paul Hebron <
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Date:       Saturday, 25 Apr 2009 22:20:13 -0400
Subject: 20.0181 Playing Iago
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

"This may be an odd question, but based upon your experiences, what 
makes for an unsuccessful performance of Iago...?"

I was some years ago stuck in a professional production of the play with 
not only a failed Iago, but a stumbling, unclear, inarticulate Othello 
as well. Watching them work together granted a kind of awful 
fascination, but it killed what might otherwise (terrific Desdemona) 
have been a very successful evening.

To the point, Iago must at the minimum be of the appropriate age (older, 
more wizened than the callow Cassio . . . and perhaps even somewhat 
older than Othello himself), he must have a sense of humour, and most 
importantly, he must be able to handle the language. The Iago I worked 
with did fulfill the first criteria, but his inability to make sense of 
the verse and prose created a vacuum at the very heart of the play. The 
audience simply couldn't track the story, relationships became 
meaningless, and the play collapsed under the weight of its own structure.

Beyond the anecdotal, I would suggest that to perform Iago competently 
is a kind of failure. Like Lear, Falstaff and Richard III, the role as 
written demands more, demands a calibre of performance equal to the full 
scope, potential,  and purpose of the writing itself. It is only then I 
think that all the other relationships fully snap into focus. Egos 
aside, a strong if not in fact brilliant Iago makes everyone better. Or 
so it seems to me........

Best to all!

  --  Paul Hebron

[6]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Louis Swilley <
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Date:       Sunday, 26 Apr 2009 06:24:36 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 20.0181 Playing Iago
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

It is the duty of every director and every actor of roles of villains to 
make him/her as sympathetic to the audience as possible. In the recent 
Alley production of "Othello", Desdemona knelt before Iago, weeping and 
begging him to help her convince Othello of her devotion; Iago moved his 
hand over her bowed head and was about to caress it in sympathy - but 
then quickly brought his hand behind his back with his fist clenched. 
Unfortunately there was nothing else in the production to pick up on and 
continue or reflect  this humanizing moment for the character. In a 
long-ago production of "Romeo and Juliet", John Wood as Capulet raged 
against his daughter for refusing to marry Paris -- but broke into tears 
in the midst of his rage. These humanizing corrections are necessary; 
otherwise we are merely given the one-dimensional, 
"you-must-pay-the-rent" villain of cheap drama.

L. Swilley

[7]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Mike Shapiro <
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Date:       Sunday, 26 Apr 2009 22:12:29 -0700
Subject: 20.0181 Playing Iago
Comment:    RE: SHK 20.0181 Playing Iago

I think back on Stanislavski's position that the Cherry Orchard played 
in Moscow in 1925 should not be the Cherry Orchard played in France in 
1955.  The advancements in understanding psychology, current events, 
social manner and customs of the present audience should be considered. 
How people scammed back in the 1600's (the posture, the volume and pitch 
of their voice, was their speech pressured or did they throw away any 
urgency, what level of relief will success provide them) does not work 
for me in 2009.

My experience with the criminal mind leads me to believe that those who 
commit violent felonies are saddled with existential deformity. To 
themselves, they do not exist. Whether the malady's origin is nature, 
nurture or both they are damned to relentlessly pursue relief. If it was 
not the personnel decision that completely consumed Iago it would be 
some other crisis in which the existential conundrum would play out.

For example, I do not feel Branagh's Iago in his filmed version was 
successful. To my, albeit unreasonably high standards, a successful Iago 
is one who seduces every man in the audience into believing that this 
Iago or someone with similar powers of persuasion could expose their 
vulnerability to such conniving. This brings to mind a review that Terry 
wrote regarding Sarah Siddons' Lady McB in which he commented that every 
man in the audience was terrified because they felt this Lady McB could 
talk them into anything.  I need today's Iago to come across as 
innocent, unassuming and trustworthy as James Earl Jones. And if James 
Earl Jones, squirming in his seat, hesitantly spit out that I should 
start keeping on eye on the comings and goings of my wife... God damn 
it, I'd be hard pressed not to start watching.  However, if Branagh 
delivered the news in that same manner as he did in his film version, 
I'm looking at him and thinking how do I get this guy reassigned to 
another department. In addition, the con man must be able to, with 
heightened sensitivity, identify the needs of the individual he is 
conning. Most talented con men possess that sensitivity because they 
exist externally and have made an art of reading people. Brando had this 
quality, where at once you could observe him discerning the personality 
of the individual with whom he was acting while at the same time 
addressing the character the actor was playing.

Mike Shapiro

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