In today’s online Wall Street Journal I review the New York Theatre Workshop’s new production of Othello. Here’s an excerpt.
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“Othello” doesn’t get done nearly often enough. It hasn’t been mounted on Broadway since James Earl Jones played the title role in 1982, and I’ve only reviewed five productions in the past decade and a half years, all of them performed in cities other than this one. So it’s big theatrical news that the New York Theatre Workshop has just opened a small-house version directed by Sam Gold (“Fun Home,” “The Flick”) and starring David Oyelowo as Othello and Daniel Craig as Iago. Not surprisingly, the whole run of the show is sold out, but it seems like a good prospect for Broadway, assuming that Mr. Craig is interested in playing Iago again in between movies. I wish he would, and that Mr. Oyelowo would join him there—but not in this production, which is more a good first try than a fully realized theatrical creation.
This is in every way a director’s “Othello,” and Mr. Gold, who made his professional debut just nine years ago, is an artist of exceptional gifts. On the other hand, he doesn’t have much experience with classical theater and none at all with Shakespeare, and it shows, not because there’s anything inept about his fast-moving production but because there’s nothing much that’s original about it. Instead, Mr. Gold has given us yet another version of the same kind of the-time-is-now “Othello” that I’ve seen in theaters all over the U.S., most recently and persuasively at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in 2014. The setting, designed by Andrew Lieberman, is a primitive barracks (eight dirty mattresses stacked on the floor) knocked together out of freshly sawn lumber. The soldiers have smartphones, read Tom Clancy paperbacks and sing “Hotline Bling” to pass the time between battles. The characterizations are off-the-rack buddy-flick stuff: Iago is an ambitious working-class bloke, Desdemona (Rachel Brosnahan) a perky millennial sitcom type who gets in too deep….
On top of all this, Mr. Gold seems to have overlooked the fact that “Othello” is not an action movie but a verse tragedy, one of the greatest ever written, whose characters are larger-than-life archetypes of the human soul in extremis. Even in the intimate setting of a 199-seat downtown theater, such roles cannot be easily plumbed by actors lacking in classical training and stage experience. Mr. Craig is, of course, a movie star of the highest possible wattage, but his two Broadway appearances, in Keith Huff’s “A Steady Rain” and Mike Nichols’ 2013 revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” proved that he also is at ease in the theater. The problem is that he is no more a classical actor than Mr. Gold is a classical director. Hence his Iago is a pencil sketch rather than an oil painting, strong and forceful but devoid of poetic depth…
Mr. Oyelowo’s acting is a different matter altogether. A British actor of Nigerian parentage, he is best known on this side of the Atlantic for having played Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.” In England, by contrast, he’s widely acclaimed for his Shakespearean stage performances—he is reportedly the first black actor ever to have played one of the Shakespearean kings, Henry VI—and his Othello is clearly the work of a performer who is at home in the classics. Presumably at Mr. Gold’s behest, he uses a heavy African accent that seems for a time to get between him and the text, but no sooner do we come back from intermission than Mr. Oyelowo breaks free of the limitations of the staging and delivers a fiery, ferocious performance…
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Read the whole thing here.