The setting for Sam Gold’s production of Shakespeare’s Othello at New York Theatre Workshop is the soldier’s mess room of what looks like a modern army barracks or encampment. Mattresses and suitcases are strewn on the floor, there is gym equipment, and the first words of the play are spoken in total darkness after the lights go out.
That’s an immediate, effective device to signal Iago’s surreptitious scheming and whispers to bring down Othello—and you hang on the words of the actors intently in the pitch black—but the contemporary design also proves one of the unnecessarily confusing elements of this production.
We assume these soldiers are on a tour of duty—something in the lazy toying of guns, the sporadic outbreaks of wrestling the men indulge in, and general sense of exhausted ennui—but where?
The star power of Gold’s Othello will assure long lines for tickets. Daniel Craig, most famous for playing James Bond, plays Iago, and the multi-award garlanded David Oyelowo, best known in the U.S. for his role as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, plays Othello, who doesn’t realize he is being manipulated to mistrust his wife, Desdemona (Rachel Brosnahan), until it is tragically far too late.
In Shakespeare’s writing of Othello, dated to 1603, Othello is a general in the Venetian army , and the offstage conflict around the Turkish invasion of the Venetian outpost of Cyprus. But the battlefield of the play, then as now, is personal—and its engine is Iago, jealous of Othello and determined to destroy him.
Othello appears so wise and commanding that when he loses both qualities, it is all the more shocking. He seems invulnerable, and he is suddenly utterly incapable, and Oyelowo is at his most transfixing when Othello is at his most broken.
Craig twists and turns his way brilliantly through this 3-hour and 10-minute production: knowing how to fabricate a stoic sense of duty and moral upstandingness when circumstances demand he show it, and then slithering around people to achieve his ill-intended ends when the game is on. He relishes every efficiently executed dissemblance.
There is never a real sense why Iago is doing what he is doing—as his famous final words of the play attest—and so it is his process of enmeshing and maneuvering that you watch just as hawkishly as he plots himself.
We stay so fixed in the mess-room maze that it must also count for where all the action from the original play—spanning council chamber, streets, a seaport, and various parts of a castle—unfold. The lack of signifying dress, except on the part of Othello, means that everyone looks like a soldier. Elevated status isn’t signaled by fine robes or stripes but by wearing the casual clothes of a Gap dad. If you do not know the play, who is who and where they rank is a puzzle.
Gold puts the men’s sexy, muscular bodies on full display. When clad not in fatigues, the actors sport gym shorts and chest- and muscle-hugging tops, and baseball caps. Finn Wittrock’s captain, Cassio, not only loyally supports Othello, he may also be on his way to an army hunks calendar shoot. Whatever he lacks in insight, Oyelowo’s Othello has made up for in protein shakes. Craig’s Iago probably dreamt up his terrible schemes on the bench press.
Into his orbit of malevolence he draws unwitting accomplices like Roderigo, lovelorn for Desdemona, whom Matthew Maher plays with a fantastic, jaded camp and a perennial air of “Like really, Othello?” when prevailed upon to undertake one task or another, as if he was being dragged to a bar for a final drink against his lacking will.
Marsha Stephanie Blake also provides distinctive energy as Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maidservant. She first seems to be another soldier, and then—as the play continues—it is her intimacy with her mistress and her fury at her husband’s duplicity that define her.
Indeed, while the tragedy of Othello may be that of what happens between him and Desdemona, the emphasis in Gold’s production comes to be on the dynamics of the two same-sex couples: the toxicity of Othello and Iago, and the purity of Desdemona and Emilia. In this production, Emilia’s sadness at Desdemona’s fate feels just as piercing as Othello’s, perhaps because Othello and Desdemona’s relationship feels so brisk and businesslike: sexy for sure, but not an overtly romantic territory of deep-and-meaningfuls and clasped hands.
Both same-sex relationships, on the other hand, have a deep and visible mutuality about them, one more twisted than the other, obviously.
Gold doesn’t do anything as obvious as signal a simmering sexual attraction between Othello and Iago. But the hothouse physicality of the soldiers’ mess and the intensity of the loyalty and betrayal we see perhaps speaks to all manner of ambiguous passions and attachments. There are soldiers who don’t say much—Blake DeLong, strumming mournfully on a guitar, Anthony Michael Lopez (wearing a prosthetic leg), and Kyle Vincent Terry—who watch much unfold from their mattresses.
The staging remains jarring throughout: Her own modern casual clothes mean Brosnahan’s cool and collected Desdemona looks bizarrely out of place—not just an interloper in a mainly all-male world, but that she just shouldn’t be there. Other characters, when not involved in a scene, stay unnecessarily on stage.
That Bianca (Nikki Massoud), Cassio’s lover, voices a greeting in Farsi implies that the tour of duty this very modern batallion is on may be somewhere in the Middle East, although a spokesperson for the production told The Daily Beast that the setting and era were both not specific. If it is—as it looks—supposed to be contemporary, and Cassio transformed into a serving American troop and Bianca a local, then an implication of danger or peril or of two cultures colliding may have made sense. Nothing is made of any of that, though, and so again an imaginatively modern add-on seems a slightly empty ruse.
Oyelowo is black, and Othello’s themes of race well-known, but this production does not dwell on them, despite Desdemona’s father early on exclaiming the word “Moor” with the same curdling virulence as a racist may use the n-word.
The problem with choosing a contemporary setting but not leeching anything correspondingly modern from the Shakespeare’s text means that it stands there as a prop. The actors do all they can to weave in and around the mattresses and suitcases on the stage as animatedly as possible, but the show feels somewhat trapped and static.
The space is most enlivened by Jane Cox’s lighting and lighting tricks, like the use of spotlights worn on the actors’ heads to make beady, illuminated eyes on an otherwise darkened stage: In one scene they are green, presumably to highlight Othello’s jealousy, and then red when murder and injury come bloodily to the fore.
And it is a pitch-black stage again, that great harbinger of mystery, that features in Gold’s imaginative and ambiguous denouement featuring Iago. No spoilers here as to what that final moment shows, but the play ends as it began, with Iago shrouded in obscuring darkness, his villainy as ultimately unknowable as the villain—which is just as Shakespeare had stubbornly characterized him.
Othello is at New York Theatre Workshop, until Jan. 18, 2017.