Old and New productions of Othello
Othello, the Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare is one of the most recognizable tragedies. It was written around 1604 and from that moment the tragedy inspired artistic and cultural world. The play was first staged in Whitehall for King James I in November 1604, but it is probable that the tragedy has been performed even before at the Globe Theatre in London. Interestingly, the play was published after Shakespeares death in a Quarto in 1662, the First Folio in 1623 and then later in the second Quarto in 1630. All theatrical productions of Othello differ in scenography, the way of acting, costumes, but nevertheless they all maintain the most important element of the play-the text. However, sticking to the original text may allow for a number of different text interoperations. Each text is interpreted differently by every director and their companies. It is one of the reasons why Othello has a vast number of productions, not only theatrical, but also cinematic ones.
In my paper I will analyze 3 cinematic productions of Othello.
I will begin with 1952 film adaptation of Othello. It is a first film production of the tragedy directed and produced by Orson Welles, who also played the title role.
The fact that Welles played three roles at the same time makes the production one of its kind. Indeed, this black and white production shows Welless close connection to the play itself. Whats more Welless strong bond with the play may suggest that he actually might have identified with the tragic hero. Welless movie undoubtedly deals with the issue of race.
Welles plays the role of black Othello which reflects the gap between the black character and white actor. On the other hand, it again illustrates the directors deep involvement with the issue of race. Throughout the whole movie the audience is exposed to a sort of black and white illusion. Welles perfectly manages to play with black and white light, creating the illusion of Othellos actor being black. Whats more the audience until the very end of the movie stays uncertain whether Othello is actually black. The movie does not only highlight the racial aspects, but also pinpoints the difficulty of playing the role of a black character by a white one.
At the very beginning of the movie, before the title and the exposition, the audience watches a blurred image of Othellos head, then slowly uncovering his full body and the middle distance. The scene is accompanied by the music that evokes the feelings of terror and dismay. Later we see that his body lies on a kind of board that is carried by the dark characters wearing hoods. The fact that we cant see their faces evokes the feelings of fear in the audience. Finally, the camera allows the audience to discover that it is a funeral procession. With every second the screen gets lighter, uncovering more and more details. Darkness slowly transfers into lighter shades. Playing with black and white shades gives the audience a clue that Welless production is not entirely realistic. White and black are used symbolically, as crucial markers not only of race differentiation, but also morality. The scene of Desdemonas murder seems to be one of the best examples of using black and white shades for the purpose of reflecting characters good and bad motives as well as their psychological portraits.
At the beginning of this scene, we first see the black shade of Othello secretly watching Desdemona from the distance. The camera is then directed towards Desdemona. The light is focused on her and the rest of the screen is entirely black. When Othello starts his speech, what the viewers can see is just the black screen, later slowly uncovering his facial features. Then Othello starts delivering his soliloquy and the piano music accompanies his emotional speech. When he approaches Desdemonas bed he blows out the candles which may symbolize a transition from good to evil. The music becomes louder to the point that is replaced by a complete silence. During Othellos and Desdemonas conversation we can hear the gusts of wind that create the feelings of uncertainty and fright. When Othello fives the last words of his speech it is too late, it is too late the loud music appears again, and the audience can see Desdemonas facial features covered with a white bedsheet.
The music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, without question, is a crucial element of the whole production. It reflects the inner state of the characters, but also builds the tension among the audience. Most importantly, the music is only present in the most significant parts of the movie, which helps the audience understand the whole play better.
Another, but late mid-twentieth century Othellos film adaptation is Olivers Parkers production. The film was released in 1995 and it is considered to be one of the greatest movie productions of the tragedy. Othellos character is represented by Laurence Fishburne, the first African-American actor to play this role in the cinema.
In Parkers version some of the plays dialogues are removed, but nonetheless the director successfully transfers Shakespeares play onto the screen. The opening scene of the movie is different to one offered by Welles. The film begins by Othellos and Desdemonas secret marriage. Similar to Welles version the music by Charlie Mole enters crucial scenes in the movie. It functions both as a prelude to many scenes, giving the audience an opportunity to prepare for upcoming actions. It is also perfectly matched to characters emotional state. In Parkers adaptation the music is oftentimes interrupted by a complete silence. This happens before the characters begin to deliver their soliloquies. Such silent pauses evoke curiosity and trigger an interest in the actions among the viewers at the same time. In the scenes of both Iagos and Othellos soliloquies the camera is focused on the actors so that the viewers can actually experience the emotions of the characters. When Iago stays alone after the conversation with Roderigo and begins his monologue, the actors tone of voice changes drastically. The true intentions of the character are revealed through the chessboard scene. It is visible here that the director uses the concept of symbolism to shape characters image. Kenneth Branagh perfectly masters the art of changing Iagos personality. It seems that the whole movie is centered around Iago. In the Parkers version he is the narrator, the one who manipulates and controls the other characters by means of various rhetorical skills. He pretends to be the best friend of Othello when he shares advice with him. He confronts Desdemona in front of Kamila, so that to create an image of a good person We see Iagos enormous influence on Othello in the scene when he implies to Othello that Desdemona may not be a faithful wife. The scene is perfectly acted both by Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh. Fishburne manages to show the full spectrum of Othellos emotional state. The viewer observes how his facial features change, how he transfers from a steady and strong person to a suffering man overwhelmed with fear, anger and hatred. Iago leads Othello to a point that he suffers from an epilepsy attack. The scene is accompanied by the music evoking fear and terror. This again proves that deeply inside Othello is weak and liable to manipulation. Another scene which reflects Othellos weakness is when Othello and Iago meet at the beach. Othello loses his temper and starts strangling Iago, which is a sign of him becoming insane. Finally, the scene of Desdemonas murder completes the process of Othellos collapse as a human being. Parker as well as Welles manages to show the viewers Othellos suffering , his emotional breakdown and moral doubts that are reflected in the scene when Othello stands by Desdemonas bed crying.
Both Orson Welles and Oliver Parker use the technique of deep camera focus to develop full psychological portraits of the characters. Welles uses black and white colors as a tool to reflect the concepts of race, of good and bad, sanity and insanity. Parker on the other hand concentrates on the psychological portrait of Iago, placing him in the center of the film actions. He reflects the emotions of the characters through symbolism.
Jones, Nicholas. “A Bogus Hero: Welles’s “Othello” and the Construction of Race.” Shakespeare Bulletin 23, no. 1 (2005): 9-28.