Sunday, September 8, 2013

'Othello Syndrome' at The Drayton Arms Theatre, 6th September 2013

Ah Othello: epitome of nobility, driven to the depths of misery by evil manipulation. Described by eminent Shakespearian scholar A.C. Bradley as "the most romantic of all Shakespeare's heroes" and "the greatest poet of them all".   As his beloved wife Desdemona perishes beneath his hand, we feel the most intense sympathy: here is a good man whose true love has been twisted, shoved unjustly towards murder.  Why - he's hardly guilty at all! 

That's the traditional reading.  But what Othello Syndrome argues is that Othello's nobility is an illusion, that we labour under a wantonly blind reading of his actions - his romance actually disturbing, violent and controlling. Here, Othello's manipulation by Iago is not a monstrous perversion of Othello's good nature, but a light tap that knocks down a house of cards; exposing this oh-so-admirable nobility as a symptom of internalised misogyny, pent-up violence and a sociopathic possessiveness.  

Othello Syndrome is theatre as polemic: Othello the framework around which Hannah Kaye (adapting the text, directing and playing Emilia) outlines the ways in which modern women suffer under patriarchal systems that automatically reinforce masculine dominance in all walks of life.  She frequently stops the action, interjecting with arch asides and commentary, focussing our attention on plot developments and giving convincing interpretations supporting her argument.  My favourite example is her she starting a stopwatch to time how long it takes Othello to transform from devoted husband to planning his wife's murder - 11 minutes and 18 and a half seconds.  That's true love for you!

The show begins with Kaye explaining the concept of 'honour killings', young women murdered by family members for the perception that they've soiled the family name, usually through unlicensed sexual behaviour outside of the male power structure.  This is a subject pretty close to my heart; I've worked honour killing cases in the Old Bailey. All murders are tragedies, yet hearing about terrified women dying under the hands of their fathers, uncles and brothers while the wider family looks the other way is especially miserable.  So when Kaye angrily tells us that the word 'honour' is utterly debased by association with crimes like this I agree with her completely.  

We soon see that viewing Othello as an honour killing is totally accurate.  From Othello's perspective, Desdemona sacrificed her rights as a sexual individual the moment she became involved with him.  Thus, even the perception of impropriety becomes a fatal breach of contract, a slap in the face to the societal rules that Othello uses to define himself as 'noble'.   Kaye also points out, quite rightly, that Desdemona's innocence is irrelevant, she could have slept with the entire garrison and it still wouldn't justify her murder.

Kaye repeatedly points out both Othello's shortcomings and the usual audience reactions to them.  She recites passages from critiques of Othello that praise the death of Desdemona as innocence sullied, the writers (all male) taking a frankly kinda weird pleasure in seeing a blameless woman being murdered by her abusive husband.  In reaction to this, when Othello Syndrome gets around to depicting Desdemona's murder, Kaye takes obvious care to make it as unpleasant a moment as possible.  

Many productions of Othello approach Desdemona's death with a cold, almost sterile, grace - her body submissively acquiescing to her husband's murderous desires, presenting his actions as warped love, a mirror of the sexual act.  Not here!  Desdemona is dragged across the room and thrown onto the floor, screaming desperately in terror.  The murder goes on and on, way past any kind of entertainment and into straight-up horror.  By the time she's faintly gasping her last, legs feebly twitching as her life ebbs away I was plain freaked out: palms sweaty; muscles tensed; jaw clenched.  

It's in this moment that Kaye's argument reaches its conclusion. Othello exposed as an instinctively violent man who defines his worth by the terms of a misogynist culture; Desdemona is reimagined as sexually confident individual rather than naive sacrificial victim; Iago still manipulative, but only insofar as lighting the touchpaper to a firework that was destined to blow up eventually.  

This is a strong argument, and the passion with which Kaye delivers it speaks volumes as to how much she cares about these issues.  When she's speaking of honour killing and worldwide crimes against women her voice wobbles - as if her body can't quite contain the intense horror and disgust she feels.  Kaye even goes so far as to apologise for the actions of her character in bringing about Emilia's death.  That Othello Syndrome is obviously a work of love, with much to to say about current state of the world works in its favour. 

Modern Shakespearian productions tend to gravitate towards vague contemporary political commentary, doing this with varying degrees of success.  Othello Syndrome, by offering the text up to be dissected and analysed, makes Othello the play the subject, as opposed to the usual tactic of depicting Shakespeare's character's behaviour as vaguely symbolic of current events. 

There are few flies in the ointment.  There's a lengthy diatribe about female genital mutilation  FGM is barbaric in a crushingly literal sense and the battle against is an important, serious and probably more closely affecting you than you'd imagine, but it's only got a tangential relation to Othello. Granted, it's (yet) another example of men seeking control of women's sexuality and reproductive organs, but it's the one moment in Kaye's argument that doesn't feel like a logical extrapolation of Shakespeare's text.

A similarly fuzzy element in an otherwise focussed production is the use of salt. The boundaries of the stage are marked with a line of salt, and frequently characters will walk around dropping salt on the ground to create patterns.  It's obviously a carefully chosen symbol, but I can't decode what Kaye is trying to say with it.  For me, a circle of salt is primarily a component of magical ritual, demarcating a sacred space, a barrier against yourself and what is summoned - but this doesn't seem relevant to what Othello Syndrome is doing.  In biblical terms, salt is associated with Lot's wife looking back at Sodom and being transformed into a pillar of salt.  This story is perhaps relevant to Othello in that it concerns the punishment of a disobedient wife, yet the connection is a bit tenuous for my liking.

This aside, Othello Syndrome is well worth a watch - both the concept of the play and the arguments it makes very well executed.  The cast is uniformly good, with no obvious weak elements - I particularly enjoyed Rosalind Parker's sinuously androgynous Iago, the ambiguous gendering of the character entirely appropriate to the themes of production.  

Passionately delivered, unapologetically feminist explorations of Shakespeare aren't the most obviously commercial of theatrical projects, but it's right up my alley. I'm very glad I got to see this - a production that'll forever influence my view of Othello.

Othello Syndrome is at the Drayton Arms, Old Brompton Road until the 28th September, 8pm Tuesday to Friday, Saturday 7:30pm - tickets available here.

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