Othello
Season 05-06 Season

Michael Kahn's Words to the Company Before First Rehearsal

• The Shakespeare Theatre Company has done this play twice before. When we were at the Folger, Avery Brooks and Harold Scott had an extraordinary idea of how to look at this play in a very fresh way. The production had a black Othello, Iago and Emilia and explored the idea of these three as a group of people—a society in themselves—coming to this other society. It was a very meaningful production. About 10 years later at the Lansburgh, Patrick Stewart wanted to play the part, and he and director Jude Kelly came up with the idea of a white Othello in an all African-American cast. That production gave a lot of actors the opportunity to play parts they never would have played otherwise. So here we are doing what seems to be the most traditional way of doing Othello, except for this theatre it's completely untraditional because of our other productions.

• I did this play about 30 years ago in Stratford, Conn., and I think I was too young. The production was a success—it even went to Broadway—but I never felt good about it. It's a very difficult play, and I don't think I was experienced enough to understand it or to get as much richness and complexity out of the play as there is. This production will give me an opportunity to investigate it afresh and anew. I think these are real people, and I guess I didn't know that when I first directed the play. I thought they were people in a Shakespeare play.

• The way I work nowadays as a director is that I begin by trying to figure out why every line is in the play. That often leads to a lot of interesting questions for myself—and I don't have the answers to all of them—but they certainly led me into seeing that Othello is extraordinary in its psychological complexity. It is, in a way, a reduction of the play to just say it is a study in jealousy. It is a study in jealousy. It's also a study in obsession. It's also the study of the destruction of a great man and, in a sense, the world around him.

• In Othello, you have this brilliant general and warrior, who says he has been fighting since he was seven. He has never thought about much besides fighting. He has had an extraordinary life, having been sold into slavery, redeemed and moved to other countries. He finally found himself in Venice, where—though he was an outsider—he maneuvered his way into this world and became deeply needed. But nine months ago, he says, he fell in love. This is his first meaningful romantic relationship, and it is with a much younger woman. So at the beginning of the play, he is at a more vulnerable place emotionally than he has been. We also know that he has a secret: his epilepsy.

• Desdemona is a young woman who has lived a rather sheltered existence. She is rich, yet she's clearly yearning for something else. She's turned down all the suitors who have pursued her. Othello represents another world to her, and so she does something very, very daring, which takes not only strength and courage but also love, completely unconditional and uncontrollable love. She does not marry Othello just to rebel; something has happened to her that has changed her entirely.

• Iago is evil. He has no emotions. He doesn't understand love. He doesn't understand guilt. He doesn't understand shame. He doesn't have a conscience. Patrick Page gave me a very interesting book about the sociopath among us. The book says there's one sociopath in every 25 people, and they exhibit many of the characteristics that Iago does. And they exist at all levels of society—sometimes they run whole countries, like Genghis Khan or Pol Pot. In the book, it was clear that sociopaths don't like to work very hard, they just like to get ahead, and that is also true of Iago. Iago's motives are not “I was passed over for this position,” or “My wife is sleeping with Othello or Cassio,” or “I want to sleep with Desdemona.” Those are all there, but he has a much larger motive and that is to dominate. These things that happen simply make the need to dominate more urgent. And he looks for the way to do it. I don't know if Iago knows that Othello is jealous. There's nothing in the play to suggest that Othello has previously been jealous. But as Iago tells Othello that he's old and he's black, and Desdemona could never possibly love him, it feeds into something. I want to investigate what Iago has to do to find Othello's weakness. And why all of a sudden is Othello weak? Is it the age difference? Is it because Othello is not experienced when it comes to wives and relationships?

• When Othello and Desdemona get to Cyprus, something really good happens as they're freed from Venetian society. They're in a more tropical place, a more Eastern place. The war seems to have stopped, so they have a little bit of time. It's a place where people start to let down their guard, so that the situation is all of a sudden riper for insinuation. And when things go wrong, they're not surrounded by their support system. They're isolated on an island.

8/19/2005

 

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