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American-Venetian burnout

Peter Sellars' "Othello" which premiered last week at the Viennese Festwochen is a psychological study with political muscle. Barbara Villiger Heilig was impressed.

The greatest warring power in today's world is the USA, whose occidental interventions go hand-in-hand with sex and crime scandals. This is the stuff of Peter Sellars' "Othello". In the hands of this American director, Shakespeare's Venetians, who speak the original text word for word, are Afro-Americans and Latinos, communicating in their dark blue uniforms over cell phones. The decision to send General Othello to Cyprus to defend the outpost against the Turks is reached via telephone conference. And Sellars has updated both skin colours and sexes to fit today's reality. The governor of Cyprus is a woman, Signora Montano, which in the course of this epic tale, leads to complications. She becomes a rape victim. On the surface, military life is dictated by prudery. It doesn't take much to topple inhibitions. A few beers to celebrate the defeat of the Turkish fleet – Lieutenant Cassio loses control and turns on his female comrade.

All photos: Armin Bardel
John Ortiz (Othello), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Jago)

The production premiered at the Viennese Festwochen in the Akzent Theatre, it will eventually travel to Bochum and on to New York (where it was developed). It is Sellars' first Shakespeare since "The Merchant of Venice" some 15 years ago, and as then he is working with John Ortiz – this time in the role of Othello – and Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose star rose dramatically with his Oscar for his role as Capote in the eponymous film. The Hollywood star now plays Iago, a pudgy, unprepossessing individual with white blond hair and a short beard, his hands mostly thrust into the pockets of his worn trousers, a pullover over an open collar shirt. He might cut a shoddy figure, but he's an acting sensation. Surrounded by the dark military in their uniformed stiffness, this white Iago is like a soft naked organic thing. An exposed brain, steering everything.

Jessica Chastain (Desdemona)

Hard and soft, light and dark – minimalist but clear polarities are the hallmark of this production. The play gets off to an austere start. The naked black stage is dominated by a single prop: the bed on which Othello and Desdemona are lost in an embrace, is a bank of video monitors (Gregor Holzinger). The couple are entwined on a glassy incline, the monitors rising to a wall behind them. But what initially seems to be a newsroom or a commando HQ turns out to be a poetic oasis in martial surroundings. Colours and shapes from dreamworlds artfully dissolved into a puzzle, flicker across the screens. But engrossed in the intimacy of their love, the couple are dangerously vulnerable on this altar. Before the tragedy ends, it will be their grave.

LeRoy McClain (Cassio), Saidah Arrika Ekulona (Montano / Bianca)

Shakespeare's Othello, "The Moor", an ageing outsider in the Venetian establishment who earned his high rank in society with his prowess in war, secretly marries the much younger Desdemona, and bring the force of her senator father's rage upon himself. Enter Iago, Othello's ensign who, when supplanted by Cassio's promotion, is injured to his ego's core. Iago is consumed by envy, bad-blood and jealousy. Dramatic literature's best-known bad guy contains his explosive hatred in a perfidious intelligence and embarks on a hate campaign against Othello, whom he manages to convince of Desdemona's supposed infidelity. Iago's personal act of revenge drags everything else into the abyss. The war, rumbling away in the background, breaks out in the souls on stage. Its motor is Iago, but Iago is only making use of what is already at hand. The immune systems of those around him are weak; they cannot secure peace. This is the revelation of Sellars production, and it fuels Shakespeare's drama with a markedly contemporary emotional energy.

LeRoy McClain (Cassio), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Jago), Saidah Arrika Ekulona (Montano / Bianca)

John Ortiz's Othello is no imposing authority figure, he's just a shrewd soldier at the end of his career. Matter-of-factly he carries out his duty as commander of the occupying forces in Cyprus, by delegating defensively. His dark-skinned officers, Gaius Charles looking like Obama, LeRoy McCain with more and Saida Arrika Ekulaona with less medals on his chest) sit on folding chairs, punching messages into their cell phones. There's an oppressive atmosphere of melancholy ennui with a strong sexual undercurrent. The all-American cast brings the languid existence of its nation's mercenary life to the stage, burnout with no prospect of triumphalism, paltry and wretched.

John Ortiz (Othello), Jessica Chastain (Desdemona), Liza Colón-Zayas (Emilia)

Julian Acosta as Roderigo, a tall, awkward youth, whose adoration for Desdemona makes him the perfect instrument in Iago's strategy, a mere vehicle for Philip Seymour Hoffman to set tragedy in motion. Iago encircles his victim – Othello – from a distance, throwing the switches. The first half of good four-hour performance belongs to Hoffman. Othello loses himself in Desdemona. The blond-haired Jessica Chastain in her cyclamen red cocktail dress is every inch the clichee of a high-society debutante: pretty as a picture, tender and sweet and little else besides. What feeds the love between her and Othello? In Sellar's vision it is a flight from the world, a longing for intimacy, tranquillity and what one calls happiness. Over and over the pair retreat to their bed, where they melt in unprotected surrender. Like a river rolling through the endless present. But around them reality is stirring.

Back: Jessica Chastain (Desdemona), John Ortiz (Othello) Front: LeRoy McClain (Cassio)
Standing: Philip Seymour Hoffman Iago)

Sellars surrounds this doomed ideal of purity with the dirt of real life. He speculates on erotic alliances between Cassio and Desdemona, Othello and Iago's wife Emilia, who Liza Colon-Zayas plays as a faithful but pragmatic friend to Desdemona. Every one, it seems has had something with everyone else, and this turns Iago's sexual frustration to a Hamletesque misogyny. The second half of the evening shows Hoffman, now a master of self-control, coolly riding the waves of his excitement, while his foil, John Orziz's Othello falls apart. As he loses his cool, he loses definition, and Iago nestles up, oozing empathy: best friend and fiercest enemy combined. Hoffman does not explain Iago's being. He tells the story of a corrupt soul who outsources his impotence until he can watch his own envy destroying Othello. A psychological study with political muscle: memorable and masterly.


This article orginally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 16 Juni 2009.

Barbara Villiger Heilig is the theatre critic for the NZZ.

Translation: lp - let's talk european