Stratford’s new Othello is as stark as black and white

Stratford’s new Othello is as stark as black and white
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Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins is a thespian and performer who has worked with theatre, film, and TV across Ontario. He comes from Campbellton, NB, and has lived in North Oakville over 20 years. He is a graduate of Journalism from Sheridan College. Twitter: @MrTyCollins

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The Stratford Festival pioneers Canadian live theatre. In this year’s flagship Shakespearean production Othello, the ensemble creates a beautifully barren play from the classic text.

Director Nigel Shawn Williams (of last season’s To Kill a Mockingbird) set the play in a contemporary mediterranean army base. The production flourishes under its relentless reminders of how modern the show and its themes are. While it sometimes feels too aggressive, so is the show.

Othello (Michael Blake), a Moorish general in the Venetian army, marries a local girl named Desdemona (Amelia Sargisson). As they travel abroad on a mission, he is tricked into destroying his career and family by Iago (Gordon S. Miller) – his right-hand man desperately trying to ruin Othello by any means necessary.

This is not your standard Shakespeare. It’s a raw and visceral. The striking design leaves absolutely nothing on the table. Williams’ direction draws some parallels to Belgian director Ivo van Hove and his bare-bones revivals in the world of mainstream theatre.

Yet for all the elements stripped down, the concept is wholly traditional. When plays were presented in Shakespeare’s globe in the late 1500s, stages were mostly empty, with a backdrop being the only set.

Photo: David Hou

The modern twist here is that the backdrops are now decidedly high-tech. Elaborate projections depict buildings one moment and vast outdoor landscapes the next. Some of the images are simply breathtaking, if only slightly less cool than those of last season’s Coriolanus.

Each of the three starring parts are marvellously done. Blake is a tortured, seismic general working through deep poison. Miller is a smartly funny Iago stirred from brutality and unthinkable evil. Sargisson is perhaps the most intelligent and compassionate Desdemona I’ve ever seen.

Some elements don’t feel totally at home. As an example, the synthesized score of electronic music is more unsettling than interesting. But others do such as a twist with the pillow in the final fight scene – brought audible gasps from the audience.

Overall it’s a gripping and certainly tragic production that’s an enjoyable reimagining of the text. The only trouble is watching nothing but intimate conversations in thick Shakespearean english for three hours can be demanding for new audiences. It’s great classical acting, but a bad choice if you’re new to the bard.

Either way, Othello is captivating theatre for those willing to stick it out. What it lacks in production values, it makes up for in craftsmanship. And isn’t that the point of stories like this one?

3 out of 4 Stars

Rated 13+. 3hrs 0mins. Classical War Tragedy.
By William Shakespeare.
Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams.

Starring Michael Blake, Gordon S. Miller and Amelia Sargisson. Also starring Jonathan Sousa, Laura Condlin, Farhang Shajar, Juan Chorian, David Collins and Michelle Giroux.

Now Playing at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford, ON. Runs until October 27th 2019. Tickets range $35-193. Tickets available online here or by calling 1-800-567-1600.

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