Greed is the drama critic’s prevailing sin. Not greed for power or money—though none of us would complain if the artists all did exactly what we told them, and offered us bushels of cash to praise them for doing it —but greed for greatness. Offer me passable, I want good; give me good, I demand excellent; grant me excellent, and I say, “What ever happened to sublime?”
Take Doug Hughes’s staging of Othello. It is a solid, handsome, intelligent, and skillfully acted production, at which I had a good time. And now I shall prove almost as ungrateful as Iago, who had a good job and hated his employer for not giving him a better one. Othello is such a good job that I want it to be great. It ought to be great; the people involved are capable of greatness, and some of them have occasionally demonstrated it. Why the show isn’t great, I don’t know. Whether it will be great in a few more weeks, I can’t predict. Right now it is a good job; if you’ve never seen a great Othello, or great performances of the individual roles, and so have no yardstick by which to gauge its greatness, this solidly competent production will introduce the play to you very effectively.
I should add in fairness that great Othellos are not easily come by. The play is the most concentrated of Shakespeare’s late tragedies, with virtually no spectacle or battle to distract from the central story. Its one perfunctory clown scene is always blessedly cut (most people don’t even know it exists), and one of the few better-than-good things in the current production is Christopher Evan Welch’s demonstration that Roderigo is a brave, albeit foolish, gentleman and not the usual pratfalling fop who provides alleged comic relief. This leaves, to interrupt the main characters’ tragic conflict, only the party scene where Cassio gets drunk, staged here by Hughes with the same taut, abstemious lucidity as everything else. No, there’s never a lot of diversion in Othello: Its pleasure lives in the acting and the word-music of two of the most arduous and complex roles in the canon (Iago is actually the longest role in Shakespeare), flanked by four supporting roles, all of which must also be played superbly for a production to take flight. Like you, I’ve never seen it happen, though I’ve seen sublime performances of all six roles individually.
Hughes’s cast is a handsome one, astutely assembled. Before we even got to the meaty central acts, I liked Welch’s clash of dignity and tempted gullibility; I liked Jack Ryland’s tantrummy bulldog of a Brabantio; and I grinned with an old playgoer’s satisfaction at George Morfogen’s foxily soft-spoken Duke of Venice. But even in Venice, both Keith David’s Othello and Liev Schreiber’s Iago gave warning signs of acting trouble ahead. Or maybe one should say “lack-of-warning” signs, since the problem stalking this production seems to be that neither actor knows exactly who he is—a surprising letdown for Hughes, whose Delacorte Henry V was so good precisely because André Braugher’s Henry knew more about himself, and made us learn more, with every scene. There a director and an actor reaffirmed the central reality of drama: It progresses through time and reveals over time. Schreiber and David have many colors to their acting, but the colors are laid intermittently, and sometimes not at all; they don’t build over time to reveal a complete picture.
David fares the better of the two. Amiable and genteel at the beginning, he has moving bursts later of both rage and a pathos just this side of self-pity. At the end, he offers a fierce dignity—we see his power as a military commander best when he’s with Desdemona—and a sense of loving desperation that, abetted by Kate Forbes’s ripe sincerity, makes the familiar death scene deeply stirring. When David hits these high marks, the production seems fresh and electric. Catherine Zuber’s handsome, somber-toned costumes put the play in the Regency era, evoking images of Lord Nelson or the Napoleonic Wars; they give David’s African-sculpted good looks a Byronic touch.
But the beautiful touches in David’s performance dissipate as quickly as they come. He has rage and tenderness, but not, apparently, the inner dynamic to produce both at once. Othello is a man riven by contradictions; one reason the play has such resonance for us is that he sees himself—like so many Americans, black and otherwise—as an outsider, who has won status in a society where he still feels alien, a poetically articulate man who apologizes for his rudeness of speech. Iago succeeds with him by playing on fears that are already there. Never wholly believing that Desdemona can love him, Othello lets himself be convinced that she doesn’t. Under his early affirmations, we need to see the fears; under his late rages, the nagging doubts. With David, until the death scene, they come one at a time, or not at all.
Then there is the question of pomp. Othello’s rage is often linked to his stature and power: Between the first and fifth acts, virtually everyone we see is under his command, and Shakespeare gives him plenty of word-music in which to affirm his grandeur. Giuseppi Verdi made the old way of playing the role as pure word-music unfeasible. Next to what he achieved with a heroic tenor voice and a full orchestra, even Paul Robeson, at least on record, pales by comparison. In the shadow of such competition, David and his director seem to have decided consciously to keep the role low-keyed. You would never know, hearing David, that the passage about the Propontic and the Hellespont was one in which all English-speaking actors used to dream of displaying their most vibrant tones, just as you wouldn’t know, from his suavely gentle first act, why Salvini was described as playing it like “a smoldering volcano.” For a play with so much fevered passion and blood in it, the performance is distressingly contained.
As is, even more distressingly, Schreiber’s Iago. Here is an actor whose power in this realm was proved several years back, when he played what might be called the junior version of the role (Iachimo is the diminutive of Iago) so gloriously in the Delacorte production of Cymbeline. Expecting the best, what we get here is merely all right. Even more complex than Othello, Iago is also a more elusive figure. Far from having no motive, his malignity has almost too many: Othello gave someone else the better job; he may have slept with Iago’s wife; the fellow he gave the job to, Cassio, is unqualified. There is a class issue—Cassio is a gentleman, Iago a professional soldier—to go with the race issue. Modern eyes have seen a homosexual element in Iago’s fixation on Othello’s love life (Hughes’s staging relocates his interest in Roderigo), and a degree of projection that suggests his desire to replace not Cassio but Othello. Two of Schreiber’s most striking moments come when he nearly kisses Desdemona, and when, plotting Cassio’s murder, the notion of taking command himself seems to cross his mind. Such moments are like lightning flashes of the great Iago Schreiber ought to be.
For the most part, though, what we get is solid, not quite stolid, impassivity. Like David avoiding the trumpet tones of pomp, Schreiber shuns the temptation to revel in his evil with shriek and rant, which has destroyed countless Iagos (the worst ever was Christopher Plummer’s, so openly demented that even Roderigo would have had him put away). But in dodging the one trap, Schreiber falls into its opposite, enjoying his evil so little that it lacks credibility. The best Iago I ever saw, because the most convincingly scary, was Christopher Walken. You could see why the other characters accepted him as sane, though he was clearly unhinged; he rarely raised his voice, but it was easy to believe that he might want to kill any number of people. Schreiber dutifully declares that he hates the Moor; he goes efficiently through the motions of killing Roderigo and Emilia; but the person whose thoughts we’ve been privy to, through lines and lines of lucidly spoken soliloquy, doesn’t appear to have any strong connection to these acts. You expect his alibi to be “The script made me do it.” Mary McCarthy praised José Ferrer (playing opposite Robeson) for finding in the role the visionary “who makes his dream of evil come true on earth.” Maybe that was more readily imaginable in the late 1940s, with Hitler just destroyed and Stalin still alive. But surely we have examples enough all around us today; bringing them to imaginative life, so that we can exorcise them from ourselves through the ritual of playgoing, is the difficult part.
As if trying hard not to steal the muted thunder of these centerpieces, Hughes’s supporting actors often tend to come in just slightly under their best work. Even Forbes, a strong and beautiful Desdemona, occasionally gets too soft-spoken for the Anspacher’s three-quarter stage. The good work by oldsters Ryland and Morfogen at the start is balanced, later on, by two appealing youngsters in tiny roles: Natacha Roi (Bianca) and Dan Snook (Lodovico). Jay Goede is a likable, slightly callow Cassio, and Becky Ann Baker a firm but oddly unincisive Emilia. Some of the limitation involved may come from Hughes, whose austere approach consciously leaves blank many moments that beg for supportive detail. Just as drama critics, getting the good, always beg for the better.