If I understand Othello correctly the viewer is supposed to be enveloped in a sense of suffocation, a feeling of being smothered, as Iago’s box closes around the others, capturing them. That doesn’t happen in this production at all, and one of the reasons it doesn’t is that the production is so beautiful. The sets, the costumes, the cinematography, all of it – it’s excellent, even breathtaking, to the point of distraction. (Compare the sense of asphyxiation in Trevor Nunn’s film with Ian McKellen and Willard White and the BBC film with Bob Hoskins and Anthony Hopkins – in those we feel really choked.)
I’m a firm believer that the “style over substance” type of aesthetic can go a long way, and justify a lot, but it usually can’t go all the way and justify everything. The true stars of this production are the costume designer Debra Hanson; the cinematographer Glen Keenan; the production designer Callum Maclachlan; and even the composer of the haunting theme, Philip J. Bennett. So – what of everything else?
I understand the necessity of time limitations in a television adaptation of Shakespeare, and I understand Orson Welles edited this work enormously also, but that isn’t justification. Chopping this play to two hours from its true three and a half is too much. It turns the play into Shakespeare for adolescents. Too many key speeches and scenes have to go. In particular the bawdy jesting between Iago and Desdemona as they leave the ship cannot be hacked off, as it gives too much insight into both of those critical characters. The cuts hurt.
Too: showing the corpses at the very start, and then flashing back, is a mistake. (It was a mistake when Welles did it as well; it will always be a mistake.) I can’t get behind this kind of re-writing of Shakespeare in any way, shape, or form. And this isn’t the only way Zaib Shaikh re-writes. He gives Roderigo the line “… this Muslim” (meaning Othello) at one point, which Shakespeare certainly didn’t write. The point is reinforced by having Othello exchange his necklace (a star and crescent) with Desdemona for hers (a cross) at the beginning, when they’re married. I don’t see anything wrong with the visual message of the necklaces, but again, re-writing the Bard, putting in words he didn’t write? A no no! Show, don’t tell.
The camera here is relatively bland. What about the acting? Christine Horne as Desdemona and Peter Donaldson as her father are sensational; I’ve not seen earnest, wholesome goodness just ooze out of Desdemona like this before. In the thankless role of Bianca Nazneen Contractor isn’t bad, and Ryan Hollyman looks like a great Roderigo. No one else is a Shakespearean heavyweight, to say the least. Compare Frank Finlay’s “Are you mad?” in the final scene to Matthew DeSlippe’s here and you’ll know most of what you need to know.