Not quite now, but for all time

by Nobuko Tanaka

Why could Othello not believe in Desdemona’s fidelity, even though she loved and trusted him blindly? The causes were deep-rooted in his psyche, boring into his soul regardless of what his senses should have told him.

This central conundrum, as pertinent now as in 1604 when Shakespeare penned “Othello, the Moor of Venice,” is just one of the many facets of the human condition eloquently explored by the Royal Shakespeare Company in its fresh staging of the Bard’s great tragedy.

A deep, dark “zummmm” resonating ominously through Le Ginza Theatre signals the start of the play, as the curtains open to reveal a pared-down set — the Venetian encampment in war-torn Cyprus surrounded by wire and corrugated iron fences, with just a glimpse of rocky Mediterranean moorland behind, bathed in the evening light. Actors step onstage wearing dresses, suits or military uniforms that feel just slightly out of date. It is, perhaps, the 1950s.

This is, of course, the vision of the director, Gregory Doran, who reveres Shakespeare — but not too much — and as a result succeeds in breathing meaning into this work. This not-quite-now setting enables the audience to empathize with the story without being distracted by particulars, while Doran’s choice of a South African actor, Sello Maake ka Ncube, as Othello opens up the play’s central theme of an outsider looking in on an alien society.

We see Othello striving to excel as a soldier — trying so much harder than a white man would have to — and consequently missing out on normal social and emotional relationships. For ka Ncube’s Othello, a quiet dignity and sinuous dancing are — until he meets Lisa Dillon’s graceful Desdemona — his outlets of self-expression.

Added to this we have Iago, definitively played here by fellow South African Antony Sher. Far from being a stereotypical villain, this Iago is just a regular guy. Each character trusts him with their worries and secrets, and then — just as we read in the papers every day — everyone is surprised to learn of the dark side to this seemingly nice guy.

It’s an enthralling tale, enthrallingly told, and Doran’s respect for Shakespeare’s template reminded me a lot of Yukio Ninagawa, the Japanese master of Shakespeare, who has often said that respect for the text is his first priority.

Here, when Sher’s Iago addressed the audience, or ka Ncube spoke from the heart, the audience was as one with them, sharing their torment and personal failings. As a result, the distance between the stage and the audience seemed as nothing: The stage becomes a mirror of life.