Barry Edelstein directs the Public Theater's Shakespeare Initiative.
Pictured at left: John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman in OTHELLO. Photo by Armin Bardel.
Peter Sellars's reputation for artistic experiment precedes his arrival at the Public with his first Shakespeare in fifteen years. The impulse behind this production, Sellars has written, was a simple but powerful question about the play: “Can we make a production of Othello that sheds the trappings of our forebears’ racial hierarchies and assumptions and that addresses the realities and possibilities of the Obama generation in a new century?”
Sellars's answer is onstage. But here’s another question: How did he arrive at this answer? I've been involved with the production for over a year. Some selected moments from it offer insights into Sellars’s creative process:
1. Don’t take everything at face value.
Those of us who work on Shakespeare in the mainstream American tradition take as our first principle that Shakespeare’s characters say what they mean and mean what they say. There’s no subtext in Shakespeare, the thinking goes. Everything’s in the words themselves, and no one communicates between the lines.
Peter Sellars asks, simply, “Are you sure about that?”
What if Iago’s famous set-piece about “good name in man and woman” being “the immediate jewel of their souls” is not merely some nostrum whose banality is meant as a feint to keep Othello off balance—another step in a grand, premeditated manipulation—but is instead a cry from Iago’s heart? What if “my good name” that’s been “filched” from him is in fact not some hypothetical, not some rhetorical flourish, but is instead, well, his own good name? He’s already said that he suspects Othello of sleeping with his wife Emilia. What if he can’t bring himself to confront his friend with that suspicion? What if the only way he can talk about it is in code? What if the words Iago says here are dense with implications beyond what they seem to mean on their surface? For Sellars, there’s subtext, insinuation, half-truth, misdirection, and hidden meaning everywhere.
2. On the other hand, don’t take refuge in irony.
Another article of faith in mainstream Shakespearean acting is that you can’t get more than a line or two in these texts without running into something ironic, some surprising witticism intended to keep emotion at a distance.
Sellars isn’t interested in irony. He distrusts it, or, more accurately, he’s more interested in what lurks behind it than in the thing itself.
Consider Othello, examining Desdemona’s hand after concluding to his agony that it’s betrayed him by fondling Cassio, and concluding it “a good hand, a frank one.” Actors typically render those six monosyllables through clenched teeth and under arched brows. Not here. Sellars has asked his Othello to say the words with utter earnestness, as if Desdemona’s hand is indeed to him both good and frank: truthful, honest, and straightforward. The result is that Othello is plunged directly into the dilemma that tortures him: he believes his wife’s hand to be true, but he can’t avoid the certain knowledge that it is also false. The moment is devastating, a double-bind of ecstatic pain, of wretched tenderness. And all because Sellars insists on directness and an eschewal of irony, witticism, and alienating distance.
3. The lines you feel like cutting are actually the center of your production.
The typical process of cutting Shakespeare for production involves excising material that seems, to the director's entirely subjective eye, repetitive, hopelessly abstruse, or, in some cases, an obstacle to the smooth deployment of some clever overarching “concept.”
Sellars’s approach, however, is different, and typically idiosyncratic.
For Sellars, the material in the text that seems most problematic is the material that bears deepest scrutiny. Its problematic nature is to him an indication of precisely why it’s so important, because the assumptions that make a passage seem dispensable are to him what theater exists to question in the first place. Does a given line seem incomprehensible? Then we must ask what about our language has changed in 400 years that makes the line hard for us to understand. Does a sequence seem to violate some set of norms that obtain in our theater or our society? Then it is those norms that should be cross-examined, and not the sequence.
Thus the two Clown scenes in Othello, by all usual accounts cuttable comic-relief throwaways whose Jacobean puns are dead to modern ears and probably weren’t all that funny anyway, are here not excised but instead made central to Sellars’s reading of the text. Specifically, they shed important light on the female characters in the play, as Sellars has re-assigned the Clown’s lines to the composite character of Bianca Montano. What, in the rare productions that don’t cut it, is mere lifeless banter between Desdemona and some unknown, inexplicable buffoon, becomes in this production an intense and surprisingly intimate conversation between two women. Their sororal bond, forged in the face of the irrational behaviors of their respective men, becomes one of the few moral certainties in a play full of deception, subterfuge, and malign personal attack.
CLICK HERE to read the full article, "Making a New OTHELLO".