By: Emily Hare
William Shakespeare’s play Othello was viewed during a performance at the Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario, on Sunday, July 28, 2019. The production was directed by Nigel Shawn Williams of the Stratford Festival. The characters of focus for the purposes of this review were cast as follows: the character of Othello was played by Michael Blake, Laura Condlln played Emilia, and Iago was played by Gordon S. Miller. Overall, the play was a modern adaptation that brought to life both male and female characters in a way that twisted the audience’s perceptions of gender, specifically in relation to the subject of complicity of different characters both inside and outside the text of the play.
The original play, Othello, is set in the seventeenth century, when it was written. In this production of the play, the director had a different setting in mind. The characters are dressed in modern clothes; Desdemona in simple leggings and a tee shirt during most of the production, and many of the men in business casual clothing such as button down shirts and jackets. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the costuming choices for the production, however, was the decision to dress many of the characters, including major players Iago, Emilia, and Cassio, in military fatigues. Even within the clear separation of power that this choice creates, there is further dichotomy presented in the staging of the characters dressed like this. In many of the scenes where Othello’s workers are reporting news back to him, the female military members are standing below the steps to the stage, whereas the male characters approach Othello more readily and closely.
The reason that this gender dichotomy is so important to discuss in relation to complicity in a murder is that the depiction of Emilia in this particular production renders her more aware of her role in the “scheme of things” leading up to the murder of Desdemona by Othello. In the seventeenth century, much like today, women were perceived as far more simple-minded and vapid than men were. Had Emilia been depicted as a housemaid in this adaptation of the play, it falls to reason that no one would expect her to read deeply into Iago’s acquisition of the handkerchief, or Othello’s orders for her to leave the bedroom. In many discussions that I’ve had with others upon simply reading the play, I have yet to speak with one person who looked to Emilia as any sort of guilty party in the story.
The depiction of Emilia as a military woman suggests that she is strong, smart, and powerful. Societal perceptions of those in the military assume that a certain set of qualities must be possessed to make it far at all in that field. When Emilia finds the handkerchief that Desdemona left behind, she looks to present it to Iago as something he would be delighted to receive. In this production, the audience sees as Iago attempts to seduce Emilia, and reaches into her pocket to steal the handkerchief when she is most vulnerable. The actress playing Emilia showed a complex emotion somewhere between betrayal and disbelief, leading the audience to believe that she understands that Iago has a grander plan for the fate of the handkerchief. Later, when Othello asks Emilia if she knew that the handkerchief was simply left behind by Desdemona rather than given to Cassio, Emilia claims that she had not seen the handkerchief at all. These words, coming from a woman in the military, suggest two outcomes: truth (she would have remembered if she had seen it because she’s responsible) and a blatant lie (she knows that she saw it but expects that her authority will give her credibility in Othello’s eyes). Since the audience clearly knows that Emilia had knowledge of the whereabouts of the handkerchief, the deceit is clear and shocking to watch. Had the same claim come from a housemaid, there would be more of a perception of a gray area (maybe she forgot it got mixed up because she’s a ditzy housemaid).
There was another moment in the production that nodded to Emilia’s intelligence and complicity in Desdemona’s murder, which took place before the murder itself. Emilia is sitting with Desdemona, and Desdemona begins to sing a song that her mother sang the night she died. Desdemona claims that she feels she will also die that evening. A small amount of time passes, and Othello tells Emilia not to guard the bedroom door, but to leave him alone with Desdemona. The audience sees Emilia slowly inch outside of the bedroom and hesitate, turning around and appearing to ponder what the right thing is to do in that situation. Then she walks on, heeding Othello’s word. This decision shows that Emilia was apprehensive about leaving Desdemona alone with Othello, that she knew something horrible may happen, but she left anyway rather than alerting a higher authority. Once again, had Emilia been depicted as a housemaid, the audience may have looked past her as complicit because she was simply obeying orders and would not have thought to look to anyone else.
The topic of complicity is layered in this play as well, because upon watching everything unfold for the characters so painstakingly, the audience is forced to introspect and realize that they themselves knew what was happening, and chose to stay silent. Yes, they likely cringed along, their insides were likely screaming, but they stayed silent. The choice to modernize Emilia’s dress in this particular production of Othello allows the audience more opportunities to realize that the characters in this story truly had the power to prevent what happened from happening, but made conscious decisions to keep it in. Without that element, the audience may have felt just as helpless as Emilia and sympathized with her reluctance to scrutinize or ask questions of Iago and Othello.
Overall, it is clear that the Stratford Festival’s 2019 production of Shakespeare’s Othello provides the play’s audience with a very unique experience and role in the story simply by modernizing the costumes and altering some staging. By putting many of the characters in military fatigues while staying true to gender dichotomy, and by depicting the character of Emilia as someone with more awareness of the impending murder, the Stratford company managed to bring the play’s audience into a much more active and involved role than they would otherwise have been.