[Adapted from remarks to the company on the First Day of Rehearsal]
Othello begins as an epic. We start in Venice, which we can imagine as the absolute center of civilization, and which has been embroiled for centuries in a deadly war against the Turks. Othello is summoned to battle, and he lands with a fleet in Cyprus, amid one of Shakespeare’s signature catastrophic storms. We could think of Cyprus as a garrison town, located on the absolute periphery of the known world.
We have moved, as we so often do in Shakespeare, from a world of order to one of chaos.
In Cyprus, however, something unique in Shakespeare’s plays occurs. The plot constricts, the epic of war and invasion, of tempests and naval armadas, is left behind, and the narrative becomes infinitely more personal. We move closer and closer around the characters until we end up in one of the most intimate locations in all of Shakespeare’s dramas: a young girl’s bedroom. It is here that the final tragedy unfolds.
The play is about an extraordinary, highly civilized man who, like all of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, suffers fatally from an excess of imagination. Othello starts as a man admired by all—and hated by some. But when he moves from Venice to Cyprus, his imagination becomes poisoned and distorted by Iago’s vicious racism. We watch the great man fall apart—even his language disintegrates—until he cannot recognize himself. Unlike Macbeth or Hamlet, Othello does not understand what is happening to him; when at last he becomes aware of what has happened, it is far too late: Iago’s hatred has transformed him into a murderer and a beast.
Since Faran and I originally proposed the production to Michael Kahn, more than a year ago, the world has changed—if anything, the play has become even more urgent: attacks have transpired from San Bernardino to Paris to Cologne. The Syrian refugee crisis has become a matter of pressing worldwide concern. Islamophobia has intensified in the U.S. and Europe. These are lenses through which the audience will see the play when they come to the theatre.
We cannot but look at the play through that same lens. We have no choice. We live in this world, the same world that that audience lives in. That the play and the character pose inevitable political resonances is undeniable, but they do not overshadow the tragic destruction of an extraordinary human being.