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Directed by South African native and actress Janet Suzman, Othello comes out as a fine and masterful performance that for the first time has an African actor cast the title role of the Moor opposite a white Desdemona before the multiracial audience in Johannesburg, South Africa. With Tony Award winner John Kani playing Othello and Joanna Weinberg as Desdemona, the cast has six main actors. The main focus of the production is the universal concept of jealousy, which revolves around the other themes of love, betrayal, racism, deception, and revenge (Barker 127). Othello focuses on how lovers get jealous of their partner's alleged involvement with other people, and how people are envious of their fellows' achievements, and skillfully combines these themes with perfectly structured scenes, a storyline lingering in the memory of a tragic hero, Othello himself.
The production of Othello by Janet Suzman is an adaptation of the original Shakespeare's play, which is set in the Renaissance, the period of brilliant cultural achievements of the ancient Greek, and Roman civilizations, around the years 1400 to 1700 (Michael 448). The attitude in the original play was that of humanity, and was closely intertwined with many important developments including the Reformation, which marked a turning point from following the church authority, to understanding and controlling nature through science. In spite of the continued influence of the church in his time, Shakespeare still wrote plays based on secular themes, Othello being one of them. The same concepts in the original play are demonstrated in Janet's direction of the same piece as people today associate with the aspects of life presented in the original play and experience the same challenges faced by the characters in the play. Janet Suzman's production is contemporary, but still depicts an element of the original setting of the play.
When the evil Iago plants the seeds of doubt in Othello's mind about Desdemona's fidelity, this artistic work spells jealousy and oncoming tragedy with utmost clarity of as seen when the evil villain Iago sinisterly connives to bring down Othello, who happens to be black and married to a white woman (Michael 460). Eventually, the direction of the performance uses the Othello's harsh treatment of Desdemona as a whore to prepare the viewers for her death in the second scene, and goes on to maintain the intense emotionality of the scenes to explicitly depict the unique, painful quality of Othello. Consequently, the concept of jealousy in love climaxes when Othello can no longer hold himself and goes on to kill his wife and then himself, making the core of tragedy as directed in the production.
In like manner, the emotional impact of the production is highlighted by the directorial aspect of rapid development of the plot, the intensity of Othello's jealousy, the passive misery of Desdemona, and the luck and skill involved in Iago's intrigue. According to Janet's direction, inclusion of these features in the production is meant to produce feelings of confinement and dark fatality that prevents the characters from escaping their destinies (Barker 125). However, the performance does not, as most people would expect, end with Iago's death, despite his villainy. Instead, its direction has Iago take the comic role ends with him being promised only the justice he deserves, and no more.
As for the art design, the production is directed as a classic tragedy from the beginning. It opens with jealousy between Roderigo and Othello both of whom love Desdemona and this, being the main theme developed in the whole plot, results into the series of deaths that ensue as the play approaches the end (Michael 471). The opening scenes are directed in such a way as to introduce the relationships among Othello and Desdemona, Roderigo and Desdemona, and their close associates and continue to show how Iago manipulates these relationships for his own gains, but the end result of it all is tragedy. The main plot defining the tragedy runs simultaneously with the subplot: together generate the final tragic outcome (Michael 478). Moreover, the tragedy has an exciting force in the role of Iago as the comical character in this production. In fact, this comic actor is the villain and the mastermind of the deaths as he causes them in his pursuit for revenge for what he believes to be unjust acts done unto him.
Filled with passion, the play is directed to distinctively mark the lines of contrast of character of the various casts. The distinguishing qualities of the Moor Othello, the villain Iago, the good-natured Cassio, and the fool Roderigo are elaborate in Janet Suzman's production and stand out so much so that the idea of their passions remains evident through out the play. These characters are used to synthesize the concept of jealousy, deception and revenge using the various images they stamp out, each one's image the furthest asunder possible from the others' (Pavis 109). The distance between the characters is immense, yet the compass of knowledge and invention, which the director sews in embodying these extreme creations, is nothing short of proof of the truth and felicity with which she has identified each character with him/herself, or blended their different qualities together in the same story. What a contrast is Iago's character to that of Othello! Simultaneously, the measure of conception with which these two figures are opposed to each other is rendered still greater by the full consistency with which the traits of each are brought out in a state of skillful play direction.
Furthermore, the theatrical production of Othello explicitly emphasizes the concept of racism which is quite a huge issue within the play (Barker 98). Janet Suzman, as the director, intends for her audience to be firmly on the side of Othello who is actually the most hit victim of racism in the play. Othello is discriminated against by his fellow Venetians, and in particular, Brabantio who vehemently opposes her daughter's marriage to Othello just because he is black. This actually illustrates how far ahead of time Shakespeare was and Suzman clearly brings out this element of racism which is so rampant even in this modern society (Pavis 117). The production specifically points out that interracial marriages were illegal in the setting of the play, yet the director demonstrates unreserved mutual love between two people of different races. Herein, racism is arguably incidental as the theatrical direction by Suzman depicts Othello as an outsider, though he is really a man of reckonable worth. This is in the consideration that Othello has risen amid the harsh racist conditions to the position of governor (Michael 478). However, a critique of the play's direction when Iago seeks to bring Othello down shows that his ill intentions were not actually based on Othello being black. Instead, Iago was driven by the enormous ambition for power and the unrelenting jealousy against Othello.
This production explicitly brings in the element of deceit at several incidences (Pavis 113). Iago is the main perpetrator of deceit. At early stages of the performance, Iago is lying to Roderigo that Desdemona is having an affair with Othello just to spark enmity between them. He again lies to Othello that his wife is unfaithful by planting a handkerchief on Cassio as "evidence" - Emilia sees Desdemona's handkerchief. This deceit leads to the fatal loss of Othello's love. Iago further lies to the already insecure Othello preposterously that he saw Cassio talking to Desdemona in his sleep, which further embitters Othello leading to his doom.
Going further from a critical approach, the play, as directed by Janet Suzman, has some performers taking up a formal classical style, while others adopt a vernacular, almost slangy approach to the script. In the latter category, the play delivers its message home through the directives that have the malicious and evil Iago acting as a sly, oily Iago at some times, and as a joking, prankish Iago at other times. This makes the theatrical production demonstrate its essential concept of jealousy coupled with deceit and revenge by ensuring the audience remains focused and occupied wholly by the act (Byrnes 94). He does good to ensure evil and uses his words to conceal his thoughts. As for Roderigo, he uses a mixture of lies and truths, and advances a kind of mock sermon by his reason and consent, deducing particular consequences from false and cynical general premises. The three women in the play act to type helping deliver the theme of the performance effectively.
Conversely, Othello is distinguished by the triviality of the provocations that actually set the events directed by Suzman in motion (Michael 478). When Iago is shown using a little more than his treacherous words, a simple embroidered kerchief and a single kerchief, the director's confidence in employing such thin threads to construct a moving theatrical piece is clearly depicted. Doubt and eventual devastation in the play are evident in Iago's true confession to Roderigo that he is not what he appears to be. Nevertheless, his gullible sidekick carries on trusting this two-faced 'confidante' who even swears "by Janus," and plants the seed of doubt, destruction and despair a long the paths of all those he encounters, starting with his boss, Othello. This aspect of production lays emphasis on the concept of jealousy as Iago is envious of Cassio who is given the position Iago believes should be his.
Equally important to the context of this critique is the directional aspect of the theatrical piece that has Iago uttering rhetorics of soliloquies and dialogues. The result of this is that it reveals him as the master of connotative and metamorphic language. Janet Suzman also employs inflammatory imagery, emotional appeals, well-placed silences, dubious hesitations, leading questions, meaningful repetition, and sly hints in Iago's parts to bring out the jealousy he has against Cassio that makes him propagate jealousy in Roderigo as he avenges against Othello. In fact, Iago is so good at lying that he is able even to convince himself that he has the soundest of justifications to destroy Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio. His eloquence and convincing rhetoric is Janet's strong indication that language can be a powerful-and dangerous-tool, especially when used by an eloquent, scrupulous individual (Byrnes 93).
In the final analysis, Othello can be viewed in various ways as being the most tragic of heroes in Shakespeare's plays, and Janet Suzman brings out this fact with unreserved clarity. The ultimate destruction of Othello is seen much as a function of his outstanding qualities (Pavis 229). It is not his negative traits that destroy him. Being a noble warrior, though too much trusting the counsel of other men, he becomes an easy prey for Iago, who is the villain in the play yet very interesting and more intelligent than his counterparts. As a matter of fact, Iago lacks any of Suzman's beguiling qualities, and ends up being the result of his own jealous and hatred against other people, especially Othello. Thus, when Janet Suzman's most noble hero, Othello, and her worst villain in the play, Iago, collide, the aftermath is actually tragic according to human sense, not just dramatic tragedy. Consequently, the theatrical piece leaves one contemplating the loss of a superior character in the person of Othello, not the mere destruction of human life (Michael 489).