On 5th March 2017 the Year 13 Higher Level IB class (plus one lucky A level student), along with Ms Burden and Ms Smith travelled to London to watch Shakespeare’s Othello performed in the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, next to the Globe Theatre. (Spoiler Alert: If you don’t wish to know some of the key happenings of Othello I would advise not reading this…)
The Playhouse aims to recreate what it would be like for a play to be performed inside a court, instead of an open air theatre like the Globe. The trip was thoroughly enjoyed by all, with all of us enthralled by the performance of the actors, however there were certain points that everyone found an interesting contrast and comparison the text of Othello that we are currently studying for our exams. These included: the music choice, the use of lighting, and the portrayal of the characters personalities.
The choice of music was the opposite of what we were expecting right from the beginning. The opening song “Videogames” caused slight confusion, and later differences of opinion amongst our class, when it was heard in conjunction with the traditional Shakespeare costume and speech. This Lana Del Ray love song became a reoccurring sound throughout the performance. Used at the beginning it was almost a haunting sound when combined with the opening scenes and lighting. This haunting nature turned into a rather rousing and bubbly anthem as the play progressed; in particular during the celebration/seemingly hen party scene. However, as the play turned darker and lived up to its genre of tragedy, the one uplifting love song came to have a distorted meaning, turning to represent the unfortunate tragedy and demise of Othello and Desdemona’s love. The song also caused controversy in our English class owing to the way it was sung in place of the much anticipated, (by our class at least), Willow Song, which is sung by Desdemona as she is coming to terms with the realisation that she would soon be killed by her husband. The change in song emphasised the modernisation that the whole play had undergone, the contrast between modern music and old-fashioned melodies and Shakespearean language, although unexpected and different to what we imagined, worked well and provided a unique take on the tragedy of Othello.
The use of lighting throughout the performance was another aspect of the trip that triggered much discussion on the way home and later in class; however, unlike the music there was little to no negative feedback on how it was used and the effects it had on the overall drama. The whole playhouse was lit solely by candlelight (they used real candles throughout the whole performance), this use of lighting not only showed and gave the atmosphere of what it would have been like when the play was first performed, but also emphasised the dark and claustrophobic nature of the tragedy as a whole. Many scenes with in Othello happen at night; in the traditional open air theatre of the Globe, this would have been represented by the introduction of people holding torches and often accompanied by lines such as “bring me light”.
In the playhouse there were six candelabras that were used to differentiate between day and night as well as individual candles or torches held by the cast. The candelabras were able to be moved up or down and spun around, when raised up near the roof the scenes were mostly during the day, but when nearer the floor and/or put out the scene was known to be happening at night. This was useful for us and the rest of the audience to keep track and understand what is happening in the scene with more ease. Not only were the candles raised and spun in accordance to the needs of the scene, at certain points characters would put out the candles to leave the playhouse in complete or semi darkness. One of the most significant times when this happened was when Roderigo (a gullible Venetian wanting to marry Desdemona) put out the candles before he began his attempt at killing Cassio (a former officer for Othello). Not only did this help cement the scene during the night but it helped create a sinister atmosphere and foreshadow the Desdemona murder scene that occurs soon after when Othello plays with the idea of putting out the light. The use of light was also notable at the very end of the tragedy when the two remaining ‘good’ characters (Bianca and Cassio) plunged the theatre into darkness at the same time as the climax of the accompanying song, giving an incredible atmosphere and feeling of finality. Overall I think the use of lighting was the aspect that impressed our class the most and helped us to really visualise the way in which the play unfolds between night and day.
However, as much as we were impressed by the lighting and slightly confused by the music choice, the portrayal of the characters by the actors was something that nearly all of us commented on. Firstly, Michael Cassio, one of the key players in Iago’s (the villain) plan, was played by a woman and so became Michelle Cassio. This at first caused much confusion as for the past month or so our class has been reading the play with a very much masculine Cassio. But, the change in gender was soon gotten used to and with only the odd line where she was still referred to as a man, it was easy to become absorbed in the plot and not caught up in the change of gender. A point made by my classmate pointed out that this transformation of character can be seen as one of the factors that made the performance perhaps more about gender rather than race that is displayed in the original drama. This was not necessarily a negative thing but was simply different to the analysis and reading that we had earlier discussed in class. We also noted that several of the characters were not performed how we would have imagined them; in particular Desdemona and Iago. The actress playing Desdemona was older than we had envisioned and so the difference in age between her and Othello was not as noticeable during the performance. The Desdemona that we saw was also a more feisty and confident Desdemona than the one that we read and imagined in class. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, in fact the performance was very enjoyable, just different to the more traditional views that we had come up with in class. Iago was the other character that we noticed a difference in our interpretations and the performance of the actor. We noted that Iago’s more evil and sinister personality was not as noticeable in the play as we had read in our reading of the texts. The difference between the ‘honest’, compassionate, likeable nature that Iago portrays in front of people was not contrasted with the sinister nature of his soliloquys as much as can be noted in the text. Although most likely not noticeable to most of the audience (who presumably were not studying the text for their IB exams) it was interesting for us to compare an actual performance of his character to that we read in class.
Overall, the trip was an exciting and very enjoyable experience. It has allowed our whole class access to another interpretation to the tragedy as well as consolidating knowledge about the performance that we already knew. By witnessing the use of lighting and seeing the effect the entrances, exits and lines had on the characters, we have been able to expand our analysis of the drama, as well as enlightening us on more points of comparison that we can make between our other texts.
Finally, a massive thank you from all of us to Ms Burden and Ms Smith for taking us to such an amazing experience that we all very much enjoyed.