Othello: Love, betrayal and racism

BEIRUT: “We are poor clowns,” declared Charly Totterwitz, “who are going to play a tragedy that we cannot afford.” The French actor uttered this line in the opening scene of the play “Othello, Variation pour Trois Acteurs” (Othello, a Variation for Three Actors), which opened on the grounds of Beirut’s French Cultural Institute Tuesday evening.

Presented as part of Zoukak Sidewalks’ monthly performance and workshop program, this show featured the work of France’s Du Zieu theater company.

The audience was seated in a ring that encircled the actors – an unconventional approach for those accustomed to consuming theater in the classical setup with a stage, proscenium arch and terraced seating.

For an hour and more, Totterwitz and fellow players Mitsou Doudeau and Cedric Michel rendered a version of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice,” with the three actors playing several of the play’s characters

Shakespeare’s 17th-century play centers on Othello, the “Negro” general of the Venitian army, his wife Desdemona, his lieutenant Cassio and his jealous adjunct Iago. Set during Venice’s struggle with the Ottoman Empire for control of Cyprus, the play’s central themes are love, distrust and jealousy. The protagonist’s origins make race a more than latent element of the plot, which made “Othello” among the canon’s most-staged and adapted works in the late-20th century.

Du Zieu’s adaptation of Shakespeare sent a breath of fresh air wafting over the classic. The want of stage or set design allowed audience members an unimpeded appreciation of the craft of the actors, who were unencumbered by period costuming and other theatrical props.

“Trois Acteurs” commenced with a dialogue between a pepper and silk merchant (Michel) and a financier (Doudeau).

Doudeau also played the role of Desdemona, Cassio and Emilia. Michel had the roles of Othello, Roderigo and Cassio (when not sharing the stage with Othello). Totterwitz channeled Iago, Emilia and Desdemona’s father Brabantio.

Professionalism was the byword of Du Zieu’s staging. The actors’ elocution was perfect, and their gestures and postures precise. Othello appeared to French-kiss Desdemona at one point and later on, slapped her for her purported infidelity.

Du Zieu’s adaptation set out to underline how racism inflects the characters’ behavior and interactions in the play – a theme accentuated with the insertion of lines like “The opinion is wary of Arabs”; “I [Othello] wasn’t taught the language of diplomats”; “These Arabs are inconsistent”; “An Arab general, impulsive and jealous, who kills his Venetian spouse before killing himself.”

As noted, the audience’s proximity to the actors’ labors made it easier to appreciate the players’ talent – their performances punctuated by weeping, screaming, lurching to and fro and profuse perspiration.

Though the staging of “Trois Acteurs” was more minimalist and transparent than you’d find in an elite production of “Othello” – the actors carried out their costume changes in front of their audience, for instance – the plot of Du Zieu’s adaptation is not appreciably different from the standard one.

All the principal characters were present and accounted for, and the narrative context was not overlooked. Having the characters shod in contemporary (rather than period) costume lent an element of the contemporary to the adaptation. The three actors walked among the audience as they performed, engaging them as though they were characters in the drama rather than mere audience members.

This may well have been off-putting to some spectators in the audience – especially those accustomed to being left alone to update their Facebook status in the darkness of the terraces.

Anyone versed in the course of the Shakespeare play would not have been surprised by the way Du Zieu concluded “Trois Acteurs.” Neither ought they have been surprised to find an element yanking the original somewhat closer to the realities of contemporary society.

Intense and consummately professional, Du Zieu’s reworking of “Othello” interrogates how members of racially distinct immigrant communities are perceived by their hosts, demonstrating yet again that – notwithstanding the period they were composed – Shakespeare’s works remain relevant today.

“Othello, Variation pour Trois Acteurs” is performed at the French Cultural Institute until May 9. Du Zieu’s Beirut program will also continue on May 12 with “L’Avantage du Printemps.” For more information, please call 70-910-339.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 08, 2014, on page 16.




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