Venetian Bind

Royal National Theatre's Othello shares Herberger bill with Princess Anne

You can recognize a lady by her elegant hair/but a genuine princess is exceedingly rare . . .

--Once Upon a Mattress

In the states, we make up for not having our own actual royalty by slinging regal titles as insults: Welfare Queen, Jewish American Princess, royal pain--even kingpin has a vaguely jaded quality. But put us in the presence of a real live princess, and we're awed. That seems to explain the particularly cordial treatment that the state of Arizona accorded the guest of honor at the Herberger two Tuesdays ago. The pretext was the U.S. premiere of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain's Othello, but the play itself was pretty plainly the undercard--the evening's main attraction was the trotting out of the Princess Royal Anne to kick off the UK/AZ Festival.

At a quarter after 7, the house at the Herberger main stage fell eerily quiet. Most of the crowd had paid $150 to $200 for the privilege of standing up on cue. It had been emphasized to us that we all had to be in our seats by that time, sharp, so that we could rise when Anne, the Princess Royal of Great Britain, and entourage were led in. The hush seemed less one of respect and more one of unease--would we get yelled at if we didn't rise?

Anne was running late, so KTAR radio host and film critic Michael Dixon stepped onstage, and, with practiced suaveness, tipped us to what was expected of us during the laborious process of getting the Royal Tush into its seat. At the trumpets' blare, we would all rise until the Princess was comfy in her own seat, he instructed. Even among this presumably royal-friendly crowd, there was a fair amount of eye-rolling and giggling at this folderol--"It's as much for security reasons as anything else," Dixon said placatingly.

I had begun my own celebration of the UK/AZ fest that afternoon by stuffing myself with greasy fish and chips at the New Yorker cafe--just the thing to fuel my own sense of irony over this ceremonial kickoff to what is, after all, just a trade schmooze with a few bones thrown to the culturally starved. The smart aleck in me thought of shouting, "Remember Bunker Hill!"

Dixon soon turned the mike over to actress Lynn Redgrave, who, ever the trouper, vamped admirably with stories of her days as a founding member of the National. The Princess, Dixon informed us after a while, had paused to admire John Waddell's bronze naked people dancing in front of the Herberger. Minutes later, Dixon heralded Anne. Obedient, we universally rose. Two young trumpeters in a local approximation of Beefeater costumes stepped onstage, blasted out a slightly shaky Trumpet Voluntary, and in swept Anne and her posse. Alas, no amount of decorum could prevent a wave of titters when one of the poor kids onstage hit a sour note.

The 47-year-old Anne has been regarded as a world-class equestrian, and like her late ex-sister-in-law--though with a tad less publicity--has vigorously pursued charity work, notably for Save the Children. She is--by default--my favorite British Royal, a title she inherited from Prince Andrew when he didn't have the nerve to marry porn star Koo Stark and grace the world with "Princess Koo." Anne, on the other hand, named the younger of her two children "Zara." She's also been regarded, at least in her younger years, as a world-class hardass, deriding her friends for failing to refer to her mom as "Her Royal Highness," or telling pesky journalists to "fuck off!" But this night, she quickly took her seat and looked stage front.

Though quite incidental to the Anne floor show, there also was a pretty good Othello up on the Herberger stage that evening. Indeed, despite some minor, if annoying, conceptual flaws, and despite an overfondness for pregnant pauses, the Royal National's rendering is marvelous--a richly inventive yet straightforward interpretation of a minimally abridged text.

I had thought that Othello was one of the few Shakespeares that would resist updated dress--its sensual exoticism and archaic notions of dealing with adultery seemed to demand the remoteness of the Renaissance. But director Sam Mendes convinced me otherwise. He's put his cast in the costumes of '30s-era colonial occupiers, and placed the action in front of designer Anthony Ward's simple wall of Venetian blinds, beneath Paul Pyant's sometimes maddeningly dim lights.

Apart from some fiddling with 1930s bric-a-brac--a phonograph--the idiom feels just right for this tale of the hapless Moor driven to murderous jealousy of his new wife by the artful scheming of his false friend Iago. It's remote enough to retain a touch of romance, yet it frees the material from any Ren-Faire quaintness. There's real, raw sexual terror in this Othello. If the focus is on the madness to which a great-hearted but gullible man is driven, it's trained even more acutely on the results of that madness, especially on women. The misery of being a man in the grip of jealousy is here matched by the suffocating physical horror of being a woman in the grip of a jealous man.

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