The Tragedy of Emilia?: Othello at the Rose Theatre, Bankside

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Othello at the Rose Theatre, Bankside, directed by Pamela Schermann. Photo by Robert Piwko.
Othello at the Rose Theatre, Bankside, directed by Pamela Schermann. Photo by Robert Piwko.

A woman lies dead on her marriage bed; her husband has killed her. He is half-mad with jealousy, spurred on in his murderous rage by his trusted friend, who has convinced him that his wife is untrue. The murderer stands before the powerful men of his community, ready to be condemned for his crime, but still convinced that the murder was justified, that the presence of his wife’s corpse in their bedchamber is the logical conclusion of her sin of adultery.

But there is another woman present. The wife of the murderer’s treacherous friend has learned of her husband’s involvement in the crime, and she condemns him before the community, refusing to be silent as a good wife should be: “’Tis proper I obey him, but not now,” she tells the watching men. Furious at her disobedience, her husband kills her. The armed men who surround him do nothing to intervene.

This is a tragedy that is all too easily lost in contemporary productions of Othello. The play ends with not one, but two, marital murders, but Emilia’s death is frequently presented as a mere by-product of the central tragedy of the play. Yet her death, like that of Desdemona, stems from Iago’s malice; from the pervasive racism and misogyny with which Iago poisons his friend’s mind; and from an acceptance, in the world of the play, that husbands have the right to punish their wives with violence.

Time Zone Theatre’s bold new reimagining of Othello offers a shift in focus: reducing the onstage characters to only Othello, Desdemona, Iago, Emilia, and Cassio, and truncating the action to fit a 90-minute running time, this production allows Emilia’s tragedy to emerge with a new clarity and pathos. Ella Duncan brings an engaging vitality to the role, ensuring that Emilia’s death never becomes an afterthought. Although the play’s action is shifted to the “business world” of contemporary London, and the judging male community, central to the ending of Shakespeare’s text, is removed from the action, this adaptation illuminates many of the concerns of the original: the precariousness of reputation; the potential for internalised prejudices to corrupt; and the fatal potential of domestic violence when the wider community fails to intervene.

Director Pamela Schermann makes some brave decisions. Tableaux and time-stops allow disparate scenes to be woven into a coherent narrative, voiceovers reveal the inner monologues of the characters, and Cassio’s conversation with his lover, Bianca, takes place over Skype, circumventing the limitations of the play’s cast size. This final innovation is the most entertaining, locating Cassio in terms of a recognisable contemporary trope, the technologically dependent commitment-phobe; this is reinforced when a variation of the Skype ringtone provides a witty soundtrack to the following scene. But while these creative responses to the cast size and reduced time-span bring energy and playfulness to the production, this adaptation also creates a number of problems. The relentless focus on Othello’s transition from loving husband to murderer leads to difficulties in pacing, which are exacerbated by the choice to occasionally leave characters alone and silent onstage, while they wait for events to unfold offstage. Iago’s temptation of Othello, which can be a masterpiece of suspense, here creates a sense of monotony, which is reinforced by the unchanging set and the unvarying tone. Furthermore, the lack of any kind of communal or legal intervention following Desdemona’s death leaves the ending feeling anticlimactic; once Desdemona and Emilia lie dead, Cassio staggers in, and Othello and Iago slump to the floor, leaving the play to simply peter out.

The adaptation also struggles with its translation of the action to contemporary London. The atmospheric venue, where the archaeological remains of the original Rose Theatre lie just behind the stage space, provides a constant reminder that this play was written, and is in many ways rooted, in a very different world to the one we see portrayed onstage. Many dissonant elements remain unexplained. Why does Desdemona ask her co-worker, Emilia, to put wedding sheets on her bed, especially as she then appears to sleep in her office? Why does a drunken brawl just outside the office disturb Othello and Desdemona’s sleep? Why is almost everyone in this office married to one another? We hardly ever see the characters working, and this makes situating the entirety of the play’s action in the workplace ring false.

The director’s note suggests that this production is asking “How much can and should we sacrifice to achieve our career goals?” However, in an attempt to shape Othello to fit this question, a key element of Shakespeare’s tragedy is lost: what Coleridge famously called Iago’s “motiveless malignity”. In making Iago’s motives explicable, and rooting his crime in professional ambition and sexual jealousy, this production deprives its villain of his mystery, and thus of much of his charisma.

Another problem with updating the action is the acceptance of overt misogyny and racism by the play’s characters, which sits uneasily in the contemporary world of this adaptation. When Iago suggests that Desdemona is unnatural in having chosen Othello rather than a man of her “own complexion”, Othello receives this suggestion smilingly, while Emilia suggests that it is “proper” that she obey her husband with a straight face, and Desdemona’s opening voiceover explains that she has ceased to be obedient to her father in marrying her husband, but now will be obedient to her husband instead. Iago’s racism is of course no surprise, but in this context, Othello’s immediate acceptance of it is; likewise, it is perhaps explicable that Emilia has been cowed by her husband’s misogyny, but Desdemona’s similar emphasis on obedience to father and her husband is inexplicable.

This is a flawed production, but it is also a brave attempt to reduce Shakespeare’s tragedy to its central concerns, and to demonstrate its resonances for contemporary Londoners. Those resonances do emerge, but not in the places that the director’s note suggests. It is in its emphasis on the two women at the heart of this tragedy, and their refusal to be frightened into silence by the violence of men, even as it proves fatal to them, that this adaptation convinces.

Othello continues at the Rose Theatre until February 28.

Emma Whipday

About Emma Whipday

Emma is a PhD Candidate in English at UCL, researching violent homes in Shakespeare's tragedies. She studied at Oxford as an undergraduate, where she was deputy editor of The Isis. Emma has written for the Royal Opera House Digital Guide to the Winter's Tale, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and the Sunday Times Culture Magazine. She is the Associate Writer for theatre company Reverend Productions.

Emma is a PhD Candidate in English at UCL, researching violent homes in Shakespeare's tragedies. She studied at Oxford as an undergraduate, where she was deputy editor of The Isis. Emma has written for the Royal Opera House Digital Guide to the Winter's Tale, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and the Sunday Times Culture Magazine. She is the Associate Writer for theatre company Reverend Productions.

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