October 20, 2013

Othello: From the Stage to the Screen

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By MADELINE SALINAS

For its 50th anniversary, this fall the National Theater is producing a series of Platform events. Othello is a part of the National Histories platform, celebrating historically acclaimed plays. Othello’s September 26th performance was filmed live and the recording was screened twice at Ithaca’s Cinemapolis this weekend.

This fall, the National Theatre of London produced Shakespeare’s Othello in a performance that brings to light the ways that theater has changed over time.  The production, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Olivier Award-winning actors Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear as Othello and Iago, showcases Shakespeare’s classic writing with a talented cast. Set in modern day, Hytner, the cast and the creative team utilize Shakespeare’s literature to tie the best of two eras of art together in a seamless and memorable production.

The opening scene, an exchange between Roderigo and Iago set in front of a bar and complemented with noise from indoors and from the surrounding city, was perhaps too casually staged for Shakespeare’s formal writing. However, as the play moves to Cyprus, the blank-slate uniformity of the military base minimizes the cultural discrepancies between the setting and the writing. On the base, the interjections of modern social norms are tasteful and bring the script to life. Contemporary upbeat music pounds behind a scene of the soldier’s socializing, cut off dramatically for Cassio’s brawl. When Desdamona arrives in Cyprus, jumping into Othello’s arms, she breaks down the potential stuffiness of the script and maximizes the

emotional connection of the audience to a timeless piece of literature.

The blocking and staging of the National Theatre’s production “set the stage” for a dynamic and energetic performance. The set, especially on the base in Cyprus, was very substantial, with backdrops realistically resembling large cinder blocks that were seamlessly moved from scene to scene. Many of the indoor scenes in offices or lodgings at the base were placed on the diagonal, with the audience facing the corner of the room. This placement effectively opened the set and increased visibility of the actors, creating more opportunity for innovative blocking and seamless movement of the set between scenes. The set was also conducive to filming;  because the National Theatre Live exponentially increased their audience of Othello through current screenings in theater’s such as Ithaca, this was a critical factor in the success of the production. The performance was captured very artfully on film, avoiding the static panorama that many theatres employ when filming productions. Indeed, the National Theatre is deeply committed to incorporating the art of film into the NTL screening, capturing close ups of actors in monologues that strategically worked with the literature. In Othello’s first monologue, for example — spoken as he meets with the duke and Desdamona’s father — the movement of the camera is deftly used to accentuate the honorable traits that the monologue reveals.

The acting in Othello fulfilled the promise of such an experienced cast. The relationship between Othello and Iago, specifically, is built very strongly on the base in Cyprus. In a scene with the two actors, Adrian Lester’s ability to vacillate between emotions in his turmoil with Desdamona is moving and critical in executing the complexity of the play.

Ultimately, the National Theatre’s production takes a challenge in setting the performance in modern day and makes it a useful tool, dazzling audiences with the emotional connection that this modern setting provides. With excellent acting, the talent of the cast showcases Shakespeare’s literature. The acting skill, combined with excellent filming and set design, comes together to create a memorable performance and a worthwhile film-play hybrid.

Madeline Salinas is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at msalinas@cornellsun.com.

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