By Isaac Butler
Now that I've seen it, I’d like to briefly talk about a couple of aspects of Sam Gold’s recent, much-lauded production of Othello at New York Theatre Workshop and how it will hopefully come to influence how we produce Shakespeare. No, I’m not talking about the casting of movie stars, although both Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo’s performances were excellent. I’m talking instead about the way the production through sheer excellence makes a great case against both over conceptualization and the recent controversial efforts to “translate” Shakespeare plays to make them more accessible to contemporary audiences.
If you’ve seen this Othello, you might balk at my saying that it resists over conceptualization. This Othello was very directed, and the design was extremely present. The production transformed New York Theatre Workshop into a wood-lined barracks, with only a few light sources (none of them traditional theatrical light). When the audience entered, a soldier sat on stage playing Guitar Hero. The first scene took place almost entirely in the dark. The costumes looked deliberately unfinished. The cast sang Hotline Bling at one point. Two cast members besides Oyelowo were Black, shifting the focus away from Othello’s racial otherness and towards other themes.
Yet the production avoided literal conceptualizing. This play did not literally take place during the Iraq war, but it gestured at it. It did not literally take place in a barracks, but used elements of a barracks as scenery. Rather than taking us to a specific place or time, the design choices instead aimed to create the right environment for this interpretation of the text, an interpretation that was focused on war and its effects on masculinity.
Gold isn’t the only director to take this approach to Shakespeare, but it’s worth looking at his choices in light of Phyllida Lloyd’s smash hit trilogy of Shakespeare plays set in an all-women’s prison. I’ve only seen the first of these productions, her version of Julius Caesar, but it demonstrated quite well the pitfalls with the overly literal approach. At some point, almost every one of Shakespeare’s plays is going to resist your directorial efforts to tame it by setting it in one literal place. Once you meet this resistance, you can either make this tension the subject of the work itself (as in Almereyda’s present-day-set film of Hamlet), abandon the concept briefly, try to razzle-dazzle the audience so they don’t notice that your concept doesn’t really work, or open the door to vagueness in your production. Thus, a too-specific setting—which is often undertaken for the express purpose of making the text more lucid— often leads to a lack of specificity in performance and production as a way of papering over the gaps. (As I wrote about here, Lloyd’s Caesar fell victim to all of these problems). Instead of setting A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a disco or Macbeth in a library in the year 2465, we directors would do better by these plays if we stayed focused on old-fashioned questions like what the play is about and what environment it needs. As Othello demonstrates, these old-fashioned questions can still lead us to forward thinking answers.
As for translation, well, that controversy has died down recently, so first a quick recap. A board member at the Oregon Shakespeare Company decided to throw the company a huge amount of money in order to commission “translations” of all of Shakespeare’s plays. Each translation would be done by a playwright-dramaturge team under commission by the company. The translations were to preserve the meter of the verse and the original meanings of the words, but make the texts more accessible, given changes in the English language over the last few centuries.
Many people are furious over this translation effort, in part thanks to a somewhat misleading piece by John McWhorter in the Wall Street Journal which advocated for the widespread adoption of translations. McWhorter’s argument has many problems, not the least of which is that its basic premise—that understanding every single word of Shakespeare when you encounter a play for the first time is good—is obviously false. We need look no further than the success of Hamilton, which uses heightened language delivered at a clip that defeats total comprehension, yet is widely (and wildly) loved for evidence to the contrary. Does it matter that the audience at Hamlet might not know that “look thou, character” means “write down this advice” when it’s clear in context that what Polonius means is something akin to “heed what I have to say”?
Another major problem with the piece is that McWhorter leaves the reader believing that Oregon Shakespeare might replace the Bard’s work with these translations. Since the translations were announced, however, Oregon Shakespeare has made it clear that this will not happen. They may not even perform the translated texts with any regularity. It’s unclear right now what the impact of the translation project will be, beyond giving dozens of good artists and dramaturges (many of whom are friends) paying work.
At the same time, since McWhorter’s piece kicked off a debate that will almost certainly re-start once the translations are done, it’s worth noting how director Sam Gold’s production of Othello amply demonstrates how unnecessary translation is. What you need, instead, are actors who understand every word they are saying, making clear and specific choices with each line, in a space small enough that they do not have to push into a more generalized, proclamatory style that abandons necessary nuance. Part of what made Gold’s Othello so extraordinary, in particular, was the lack of “keying,” the use of large pantomimed gestures to make the meaning of the lines clear (the most common and dreaded example of keying is an actor grabbing their crotch when they make a dirty joke). Instead, the actors make clear, simple, choices based on character, given circumstances, and tactics. It was remarkably back-to-basics in terms of performance style, particularly in the show’s stand-out turn by David Wilson Barnes as the Duke, who delivered each line as naturalistically as if he were an actor on The West Wing.
Othello is one of my favorite plays. In terms of dramatic construction, Shakespeare never surpassed it, and Iago’s temptation of Othello is the single greatest scene ever written by anyone. So, obviously, I am familiar with the play. But there were plenty of tourists at the show lured there by seeing James Bond drive Martin Luther King insane, and there were at least three high schoolers, and none of them appeared challenged (or worse, bored) by what they were watching.
Most Shakespeare isn’t done in venues small enough to abet this more restrained, specific approach from actors, of course. A larger space requires a larger performance to fill it, and it is hard to deliver a performance that is both large enough and specific enough to render Shakespeare’s plays lucid. There’s a number of ways to tackle this problem, but one clearly suggested by Gold is get out of the mega-proscenium and into people’s faces.
Neither of these approaches are new, to be clear. But my hope is the overwhelming critical and box office success of this production will lend it an outsized influence in the seasons to come. Let's have more Shakespeare in small rooms, fueled by a deep understanding of the text, using large directorial gestures with playfulness, attacking performance with specificity, and let's leave aside our anxieties about the heightened language and the audience not understanding its relevance absent some literal resetting.