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.

The cast is a seamless ensemble. Uniform competence appears to be an area in which the Brits, whether we like to admit it, have us beat theatrically. There are no wooden spear carriers--you feel like the Second Senator or the Third Gentleman could be a perfectly capable leading man in a pinch. The company is dominated, however, by Simon Russell Beale's Iago.

Beale--he was the Second Gravedigger in Kenneth Branagh's film Hamlet, playing straight man to Billy Crystal--isn't the usual physical type associated with the role. Resembling a less-hefty Victor Buono, he's as imposing as David Harewood's Moor. Yet there's a wonderful compulsive tension to Beale's line readings and body language. It's as if he uses his martinet bearing as a reproach to having been passed over for a promotion.

Beyond that, he doesn't try to sell us any fancy psychology as to Iago's motivation--or, at least, you can't see him trying. Despite his variety of disproportionate grudges against Othello and Cassio, this Iago is, at bottom, just a bitter-hearted troublemaker, a man so outraged by imagined snubs that he makes himself the ultimate insider--he talks to us. Paradoxically, this common-sense approach to the role makes Iago both more believable and more disturbingly opaque than any labored Psych 101 "explanation."

Harewood seems, at first, a bit young and boyish for Othello--it's a surprise when he claims he's "declined into the vale of years"--and he pushes the musicality of his Jamaicanish accent a bit hard in his early, ebullient scenes. All the same, his handling of this awesomely difficult role is, overall, a marvel. He nails the part of the role that counts--the grief in the final scenes, and the belated awakening to dreadful sanity.

Claire Skinner is lovely as Desdemona, and she makes a noble effort at finding a modern, assertive side to the role. If she comes across less strongly than her male co-stars, it's probably because this idealized character suffers the most from the updating--when she's no longer a fairy-tale damsel, she loses her helplessness. No doubt naively, we can't help but feel that in a post-flapper setting, a woman a few days into a marriage that's going dangerously bad ought to have more options (Maureen Beattie's Scottish-accented Emilia seems, by comparison, every inch a 20th-century woman). All this aside, it seemed strange that in the curtain call, Skinner bowed with the company, and only Beale and Harewood bowed separately as principals.

A word should also be said for Trevor Peacock, who's in fine gruff voice as Desdemona's father Brabantio. I wondered if this character made a special connection with the premiere-night audience--a large percentage of that crowd somehow looked particularly able to empathize with a rich old guy outraged at his daughter's sneaking off to marry a studly black man.

This sort of accessibility is what makes Othello such a perennial (it was probably the first Shakespeare ever performed in America). It's not as grand or philosophical a play as the Bard's tragedies about kings and princes, but it's the most hot-blooded of the great tragedies, and probably the most heartbreaking. Macbeth, Lear and Hamlet take on our existential quandaries, and even Romeo and Juliet don't literally die so much as symbolically act out the defeat of our youthful innocence. But the sweaty domestic agonies of Othello are as real as any city's police blotter on any night. The other tragedies hit us where we think and feel, but Othello hits us where we live.

The play worked this dark magic yet again at the Herberger on premiere night, captivating the audience even after the act it had to follow. Well, most of the audience, anyway--at intermission, rumor had it that the poor jet-lagged Princess Royal was nodding off.

Upcoming UK/AZ Festival theater events:
Umabatha: The Zulu Macbeth, October 11, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts (994-2787).

Three Semi-Automatics Just for Fun, October 31 and November 1, at Arizona State University's Drama City, Tempe (965-6447).

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