Review: OTHELLO (Stratford Festival)

by Lynn on June 3, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams

Designed by Denyse Karn

Lighting by Kalleigh Krysztofiak

Composer and sound designer, Verne Good

Projection designer, Denyse Karn

Cast: Michael Blake

Juan Chioran

David Collins

Laura Condlln

Farhang Ghajar

Michelle Giroux

Emma Grabisnky

Randy Hughson

John Kirkpatrick

Shruti Kothari

Daniel Krmpotic

Josue Laboucane

Jamie Mac

Hilary McCormack

Gordon S. Miller

Amelia Sargisson


Johnathan Sousa

Michael Spencer-Davis

Brigit Wilson

A gripping, brisk production, well acted.

The Story. Othello (of course by William Shakespeare) opened this year’s Stratford Festival with pomp and ceremony, men in kilts playing bagpipes, the audience in tuxes and sequined dresses for the most part (lots of jeans and sandals too) and they all sang “O Canada” in the large Festival Theatre and it was thrilling. There was an insert in the program that said there was an opening night reception in the lobby and everybody was welcome. Classy.

Othello, a moor, is the famous General who has great diplomatic abilities in calming uprisings as well as being a valiant warrior in battle.  He has married Desdemona who is white which brings out the racism of the people of Venice. Remember how those citizens treated Shylock? Not nice.

Othello’s sergeant, Iago, has been passed over for promotion in favour of Michael Cassio, a Florentine. Florence and its citizens come in for a lot of xenophobic bashing in Shakespeare for some reason.

Iago is so furious at being passed over for Michael Cassio and so jealous of him, that he, Iago, plans on getting even with Othello by making mischief. He will subtly plant seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind as to Desdemona’s purity and loyalty. Iago will suggest that Desdemona might be having an affair with Michael Cassio and will plant a loving keepsake Othello gave to Desdemona, in Michael Cassio’s room as proof. Iago gets Emilia to steal the keepsake—a treasured handkerchief to get the plan in motion. Emilia is so desperate to regain Iago’s affections that she steals for him. One assumes there must have been affection initially between Iago and Emilia that has now turned sour.   Matters escalate and of course it doesn’t end well for anybody.

The Production.  It’s terrific.  Nigel Shawn Williams has directed with such a clear vision and sense of detail. The basic structure of Denyse Karn’s set are bleak grey walls with three doors in the walls. Details of architecture, moulding, etc. are provided by Denyse Karn’s computer generated projections that dissolved down the walls to add ornate mouldings here, decorative details there—all projected in white along the basic structure. The projections establish the various locations in the play with ease and efficiency.

Nigel Shawn Williams has envisioned his production in modern dress and almost everybody—men and women–is in the army.  Emilia, Iago’s wife, is the maid to Desdemona, in Shakespeare’s play but here she is Desdemona’s personal body guard it seems.  That works for me.

Being modern dress, guns are used but not swords so Othello’s line to the Duchess’s men who come calling to check out Brabantio’s accusation: “Put up your bright swords or the dew will rust them”, is cut.

In this production the Duke of Venice is now the Duchess and is played with regal bearing by Michelle Giroux.

At the top of the production, stage right, a priest is marrying Othello (Michael Blake) and Desdemona (Amelia Sargisson). He is in a well fitted silver jacket and Desdemona is in her own finery.  Stage centre and left is a group of black-clad soldiers going through their paces with gusto and verve. It almost looks like a pagan dance with throbbing percussion.  The soldiers are itching for a fight. This goes on at the same time at the same time.

As Othello, Michael Blake initially has the bearing and composure of a celebrated general, He has the patience and languid body movements of a man in total control and aware of his revered abilities. He is thoughtful in his speech, deliberate and nuanced in his delivery and unflappable.  But as he becomes unhinged with jealousy his movements become less fluid, jerkier.  His usual calmness is now gently agitated and his speech is halting.

Amelia Sargisson is a graceful Desdemona, obviously in love with Othello and has the confidence of a woman who is loved. She is no shrinking violet. She is as Othello describes her, “My warrior.” Their chemistry is believable. Initially there is a tactile sensuality, almost a giddiness in their loving each other. But when Othello is on the verge of smothering her he carries her like a rag doll. Anita Nitolly’s choreography of Othello smothering Desdemona is gripping and will make any caring person squirm.

As Iago, Gordon S. Miller is ostensibly charming to everybody but Emilia (Laura Condlln). He drops the seeds of doubt seemingly as an afterthought when in Othello’s company. Othello helplessly allows the seeds of jealously to grow.


Finally Laura Condlln plays Emilia, Iago’s wife, with passion and the despair of an emotionally battered wife.  She endures his public humiliations because she loves him as a battered partner loves—in the hopes that he will return the love. But every slight, every barb Iago aims at Emilia is met with Condlln’s face creased in embarrassment and humiliation until she retaliates.

Othello is a play about jealousy, racism, passion and manipulation that is powerfully done.

Comment.  To get a sense of the speed in which matters unraveled, it all seemed to happen from beginning to end in 33 hours. Could this happen in 33 hours? Sure, it’s Shakespeare.  The argument is sound. Othello is in a racist city, surrounded by racist people who insult him behind his back because of his skin colour.  Desdemona’s father Brabantio is a racist and assumes Desdemona dislikes Othello because of his skin colour because Brabantio does. Brabantio says to Othello that his daughter deceived him (her father) and she will deceive Othello too.

Iago is always called “honest Iago’ so everyone is primed to believe him as such except Emilia who knows the truth.  Iago is so subtle, so cool, and convincing that no one challenges him. This play just drips irony.

The Stratford Festival Presents:

Opened: May 27, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 27, 2019.

Running Time: 3 hours approx.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 D. Maio June 5, 2019 at 10:19 pm

Saw a matinee performance today.
Found it incredibly tedious and boring.


2 Mark Kennedy June 10, 2019 at 12:43 pm

Saw the Sunday June 9th matinee. The set was thoughtfully magnificent. The actors were superb. Truly enjoyed the grip that the production had on the audience. It was enthralling…


3 Bruce F Conron July 8, 2019 at 3:58 pm

Yes, irony abounds. Look at Emilia. She gives Desdemona’s handkerchief to Iago and lies to her mistress’s face that she knows nothing of its whereabouts. Emilia calls Iago “my wayward husband” in Act III, is seemingly wise to his proclivities, but plays along, would go to hell (“venture purgatory” to advance her husband’s career, for “the whole world” as she puts it in Act IV). And yet, how “emotionally battered”, to quote Slotkin’s review, is she really? A few lines later Emilia instructs Desdemona thusly: “Why, we have galls; and though we have some grace, / Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell, / And have their palates both for sweet and sour, / As husbands have. … / Then let them use us well; else let them know, /The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.” In the end, to put it mildly, she gobsmacks Iago.