And the dagger rolled
I've been much possessed by (stage) death recently. Writing a piece about stage deaths for Obit Magazine had me thinking about deaths in the theatre, whether in the text or in production. I brooded happily on the florid endings in Jacobean tragedy (the killer cupids in Women Beware Women just squeak past the poisoned Bible in The Duchess of Malfi for gleeful ingenuity), and also about the variety of deaths - profound, bathetic, and points in between - that I'd seen on stage. In particular, I remembered one or two that hadn't worked out as they should, because accidents in the theatre are no respecter of solemnity.
When I subsequently saw Othello by the Northern Broadsides company, I was reminded of this last rule. A prop refused to behave and threatened to wobble the show into laughter.
This Othello is a plain, sober production, and the second half especially respects a plot that tightens against hope. A snack-crunching audience was stilled as disaster clustered. A looming Othello (Lenny Henry) snuffed out his tiny Desdemona. Iago's vicious machinations were exposed. In anguish, Othello grabbed a corner post on what was clearly a special military-issue bed, in which the bedpost concealed a dagger designed for just such a moment. He thrust it into his belly and collapsed to the floor.
It was a shocking moment - but when Henry dropped the dagger it rolled and it rolled, and it rolled down a little step and continued towards us with its noisy wood-on-wood trundle, until a woman sitting immediately in the front row leant forward with admirable resource and picked it up so we could get back to feeling tragic.
It should have ruined the show, but it didn't, because that's what death is: the ultimate upsetter of plans, an unassimilable element that refuses to behave tidily and let us tie up neat endings. Stage deaths are, literally, interruptions - pauses in a story that will pick itself up and begin all over again the next night. And those little interruptions serve as the faintest shadows of our own mortality - which may more likely be ludicrous than beautifully stage managed.
By the way, ask the Bard fans, how was the show (which moves to London in September)? Advance curiosity here in Britain focused on the casting of much-loved comedian Lenny Henry in the title role - his first Shakespeare, and indeed his first stage play. And he was rather good. Henry's comedy, and his appearances in television drama tend towards the affable - he isn't a cruel comic, but a loveable tease, a charmer. His Othello, toweringly tall, didn't ask to be loved. He's a big man, barrel voiced - this was how authority moves and speaks. But this general was also achingly vulnerable, and his need to be hurt - and to find terrible comfort in that hurt - was remarkable.
It was a taut production, by Barrie Rutter, with Conrad Nelson a nasty streak of spite as Iago. I've seen Iagos (Ian McKellen, Simon Russell Beale) who carry a whole world of ice within them, a cold will to annihilate. Nelson wasn't one of these, but his very pettiness only heightened the sheer pointlessness of the play's trajectory. He was a mean, small-minded bully who had no comprehension of what he was engaged in, and that only sharpened the tragedy. Until, that is, Henry dropped the dagger...
Seen any good stage deaths? Any that made you gasp, or weep, or that went gloriously wrong? Let me know...
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