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Over the years, while admiring the craftsmanship inherent in "Othello," I
had always been bothered by one question. I'd studied the play in school,
of course (seems to have been mandatory in my day), and I'd seen the usual
versions (Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, etc.), yet always this one
question kept gnawing at me, kept me from fully appreciating this play .
How in hell could Othello ever let himself be taken in by so obvious a viper as Iago?
Enter the BBC with its production of "William Shakespeare's Othello," with a particularly brilliant bit of casting: Bob Hoskins as Iago. Roly-poly, giggling, everybody's friend and more than a bit of a buffoon, to boot -- until, that is, he's by himself and you suddenly understand the true nature of evil.
And suddenly, I gained a true appreciation of the play. Simply because some casting director stretched himself (or herself) beyond the tried-and-true glowering serpentine approaches (a la Frank Finlayson in the Olivier production, etc.) which had been the norm.
It also helps, of course, that Hoskins is one truly fine actor.
A most excellent production of one of the Bard's more difficult plays mainly because of the controversy in these politically correct times of a white actor blacking up to play the lead. But since Othello is a Moor and thus a Mediterranean type he does not have to be portrayed as an African. Remember the Moors ruled Spain for a long time until expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella so Othello does not have to be any darker, than a Spaniard. Anthony Hopkins gives a masterful performance as the Moor, one of the best I have seen comparable only with Placido Domingo in the opera Otello. His gradual change of character from gentle loving husband to insane jealousy is extremely well done and his way with the verse gives full meaning to Shakespeare's words. He is well supported by the cast of less well known stage actors. For me the only jarring note was Bob Hoskins portrayal of Iago, so obviously a nasty piece of work that one wonders how Othello would be taken in by such an overt villain. His giggling also becomes irritating, definitely not the best Iago I have seen. One thing is sure, this production emphasises what a great Shakespearean actor the stage lost when Hopkins left for Hollywood. Had he remained in the theatre he would easily have outstripped Richard Burton's reputation and maybe even Olivier's. Anyone who values real Shakespearean acting should not miss this production.
I believe it was Laurence Olivier who theorized that William
Shakespeare and his lead actor Richard Burbage were bending elbows one
night when Burbage drunkenly taunted, "I can play any role you can
write." And Shakespeare said, "Oh yeah?" and wrote Othello.
The play is indeed entitled "Othello," but the focus is almost always stolen by the villain. Bob Hoskins here is a brilliant Iago, character motivations for once crystal clear, his accent emphasizing class conflict, his ready laughter only occasionally too much. You will not find a better Iago anywhere.
We know that James Earl Jones was the first choice to star in this production, and that British Equity threatened to close down not just the one show but the whole BBC Shakespeare series if a single non-British actor was hired.
However, when James Earl Jones played Othello on Broadway, it was common wisdom that Christopher Plummer's Iago stole the show from him. So we shouldn't fantasize too much that Jones's presence here might have changed everything.
Anthony Hopkins begins as a very confident character. However it is not possible to believe his backstory, that recitation of bravery and romance that wins Desdemona's heart. Hopkins doesn't look like a general, just like an earnest actor trying to solve problems. He hits a sweet spot just after Iago's first insinuations, when Desdemona appears and charms him all over again. After that, the performance goes downhill, and some of his choices undermine the later scenes.
Is it miscasting, or just a play where the gargantuan scale of emotions defies reduction to television scale? The Welles and Olivier productions were designed for large screens, not a small one.
The much-loved Penelope Wilton here is the most "English" Desdemona I've ever seen. She does everything right, but there's nothing remotely Mediterranean about this daughter of Venice. Rosemary Leach gives the performance of her career as Emilia, honest and vigorous without a cliché in sight. The rest of the cast is excellent, with an overall energy level higher than the norm in this series.
Jonathan Miller's direction concentrates on the domestic side of the drama, downplaying the public aspects, and bringing his background as a neurologist to the various varieties of mental illness on display. The visuals are once again Old Masters, with some lovely Georges de la Tour effects over candle-lit dinner.
However the dramatic heights are not successfully stormed. If you want to see Othello with the thunder Shakespeare implied, go instead to Verdi's opera "Otello," which concentrates on the core of the conflict and distills sheer dynamite. Placido Domingo can be fairly stolid and workmanlike in the part, so I'd recommend you track down a black and white Italian TV production starring Mario del Monaco for maximum impact. Here is the heroic "punch in the stomach" Othello you've always dreamed about.
Suffice it to say, I totally disagree with the negative comments currently on this site about this performance. All the performers in this BBC production, directed by the brilliant Shakespeare director Jonathan Miller, are superb. The fact that Anthony Hopkins is not literally a black man should be irrelevant. Obviously, many white men have successfully performed the title role in this play since it was first written by Shakespeare and performed in Elizabethan England. Need I mentioned Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier among many many others? Hopkins is wonderful in the role, as is Bob Hoskins as Othello's nemesis Iago. I have seen many performances of this play, live and on film, and this remains one of my favorites.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
At 205 minutes, this adaptation of Shakespeare's "Othello" is no TV
dinner but demands attention as it is a complex tale of jealousy,
intrigue and tragedy.
Returning from war, Othello (Anthony Hopkins, in a role originally intended for James Earl Jones) wins the respect of the people and marries his beloved Desdemona (Penelope Wilton). But the scheming of his false friend Iago (Bob Hoskins) threatens all he has fought for...
Bob Hoskins is an excellent Iago, played so much as the Devil Incarnate but as a cunning, almost practical opportunist pulling everyone's strings for his own gain. David Yelland and Anthony Pedley are fine as his dupes Cassio and Roderigo, and Penelope Wilton as serene and innocent as Desdemona.
I profoundly disagree with British Equity not allowing James Earl Jones to take the role of Othello, an idiotic decision at the time that would probably not happen now.
But this takes nothing away from Anthony Hopkins, at least ten years before his star-making turn in "Silence of the Lambs" and giving Othello the full breadth of nobility, vicious jealousy and eventually overpowering guilt. It's a great performance.
Some of the performances are muffled by the poor volume levels on the DVDs, and many good lines and speeches lose some of their power as a result.
Nevertheless, despite it's length, this is still great Shakespeare.
This is one of my favorite pieces of Shakespeare on film or video. Both Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins give thrilling performances. The quiet subtlety of Hopkins interpretation sets the viewer up for a shock when Othello's enormous brutality is revealed. Bob Hoskins is alternately horrifying and loveable. His frequent giggling amuses, and then terrifies. Penelope Hilton's work as Desdemona is equally impressive to that of Hopkins and Hoskins. However, I think in casting her role older than usual, some of the character's innocence is lost. Technically, the lighting and camera work are beautifully handled. Jonathan Miller's direction is sensitive and incisive, and lovingly crafted.
This is an impressive and unrelievedly grim production that omits most
of the light-hearted bits of Shakespeare's play -- light-hearted bits
that are few and brief in any event.
Because the acting by Penelope Wilton is so excellent, we forget that she is not quite young enough and not quite attractive enough to be fully suitable for the role of Desdemona. Wilton vividly conveys the bewilderment and desolation that Desdemona experiences as her beloved husband turns against her.
Bob Hoskins is superb as Iago. He could have reined in his giggling at times, especially in the first Act, but his delivery of his lines is impeccably well-judged. Precisely because Iago as played by Hoskins is highly likable on a superficial level, his merciless and devious psychopathy is truly chilling. Hoskins displays his skill as an actor when he adopts an upper-crust accent in his summoning of Brabantio and in his gloating over the supine Othello. He thereby signals one of the motivations behind Iago's crimes (without obscuring the fact that the crimes are driven partly by a love of evil for its own sake).
Anthony Hopkins is not quite as successful in the role of Othello, but his performance is generally very good. He overacts rather irksomely at a few junctures, and he looks like a slightly pudgy actor rather than a rugged soldier. Nonetheless, he delivers most of his lines well. His slapping of Desdemona is jolting, and his final speech is both poignant and devastating.
Most of the supporting actors are fine. David Yelland is good in the difficult role of Cassio, and Anthony Pedley gives a splendid performance as the foppish Roderigo. Best of all is Rosemary Leach with a riveting performance as Emilia. (Because her performance is so good, however, it highlights one of the problematic features of Shakespeare's play: namely, the implausibility of the fact that Emilia waits until the end to disclose why Desdemona's handkerchief has gone missing.)
I read the previous unflattering review and couldn't believe it! So often Shakespeare contains such a morass of preconceived notions and line readings that it becomes a play containing characters and plot no longer,but a contest- delivering 'Ye Old English' lines in a pompous overblown manner. I ran across this on cable while switching channels and was absolutely glued to the screen. Anthony Hopkins' performance (despite the alleged 'make-up' which I honestly didn't notice) was very good, and Bob Hoskins' interpretation of Diago was absolutely ingenious. As a general rule I am not overly fond of Shakespearian drama, so for me to become absolutely mesmerized by it the performances not only had to be original, it had to be credible. You may not like this version if you suffer from puerile preconceived notions on how Shakespeare 'must' be played, but if you want to see a good play that just happens to be Shakespeare, I highly recommend it!
There is controversy here about the performances of Hopkins and Hoskins
as the two major protagonists, and controversy about the nature of the
That there is controversy is understandable - it's a very schizophrenic production, careful and understated and clipped and British for the most part, excellently acted by a tasteful cast, Penelope Wilton and Rosemary Leach outstanding. Yet the two principals are given free rein.
Hoskins' Iago is the more successful of the two, scintillating in monologue, focusing on the evil of the character, trying to convey his plausibility via his rough charm. Hard to imagine the stiff-upper- lip types of Jonathan Miller's Venice being taken in by such a fellow, entertain them though he might.
But there is more than one letter's difference between Hoskins and Hopkins. Hopkins' performance is, as some of the reviewers have pointed out, as ripe a piece of eye-rolling ham as one is likely to see. Despite other reviewers' valiant attempts, it is really not a defensible performance, rising so rapidly from suave control to chewing the scenery, persuaded far too easily by an Iago who is obviously on the make.
The exaggerations help provide a context for his tense scenes with Desdemona - we certainly know how much he is holding back. The power of the moment when he slaps her is impressive. But when he lets rip, the acting style gets closer to Chongo out of the Banana Splits than any more accomplished thespian.
The effect is not at all helped by Hopkins sporting the most extraordinary pair of trousers I have ever seen, designed by Richard Hughes. The bizarre codpiece looks like Hopkins has had a painful accident with a stapler, and his stature is seriously compromised by odd curving stripes down the legs. This produces a number of odd and unintentionally humorous effects, most awfully during Emilia's affecting death scene, where Hopkins, standing behind the bed as a witness, appears to have little tiny legs, like Toulouse-Lautrec.
Either Miller could not control Hopkins, or gave him his head. It doesn't matter which - the result is an unsatisfactory mishmash, neither one thing nor the other.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
To watch Othello after Romeo and Juliet is a sort of provocation, a way
to provoke reflection and illumination. From the hardly pubertal lovers
we shift to adults that do not seem to be in any way saner than the
pubertal kids. Their difference is the way they are entangled in
ambition, jealousy and hatred from other adults and from themselves,
destroying their love and its beauty..
Othello, the Moor, is a general for the Republic of Venice stationed in Cyprus and defending the island against the constant pressure from the Turks. He has an ensign who is the most evil person you can imagine, and a lieutenant who is the most sensitive person you can imagine. Iago is the first one and Cassio is the second. A pair that is clearly set up as the two perfect antagonistic characters with one being the predator and the other the pray, in that order.
The objective of Iago is to become the lieutenant at first and then the general himself if possible. He uses all kinds of plotting devices and he succeeds marvelously: planting jealousy in Othello's heart about Desdemona and Cassio gives him a first victory against Cassio who is eliminated from his lieutenant position and replaced by Iago, but the Duke a Venice arrives with orders from the Senate: Othello is to go back to Venice and Cassio is to take his place in Cyprus. A full defeat for Iago.
Then Iago speeds up the machine to eliminate Cassio by having him killed or at least incapacitated, and by heating the cauldron of Othello's jealousy till it may explode, and explode it does. We all know what's next. Othello tries to choke and strangle Desdemona and nearly succeeds but before dying she speaks a few words to her chambermaid, Iago's wife.
The last scene is Shakespearean to the utmost. Iago manages to kill his wife, after being arrested, restrained, forced to hear his wife's confession and accusation, but thus revealing he is the one who plotted the whole thing. Cassio is brought in carried by two people and he will be the next military general of Cyprus. Then two letters are brought that were found on the body of Roderigo, the man Iago had used to assault Cassio, a man he had killed for him not to speak after his failure. The two letters reveal the role of Iago in the plot. The play closes on the squaring of the dead victims with the suicide of Othello on the body of his wife. That's the whole play in one pattern: two women dead, two men dead, but on the stage only the two women and Othello. Four, the symbol of the crucifixion containing three the Shakespearean symbol of disaster and disorder, that can be expanded to five with Cassio on the stage severely incapacitated by the assault he was the victim of. And we could also expand these four on the stage to five with Iago and that would bring three men, the main cause of disaster (one restrained, one wounded, one dead), and two women, the main victims of that disaster.
Othello has expressed that pattern and the doom that was coming when he said in the second scene of the fifth act: OTHELLO: If she come in, she'll sure speak to my wife: My wife! my wife! what wife? I have no wife. O insupportable! O heavy hour! Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe Should yawn at alteration. With an expansion: "my wife" (neutral): "my wife, my wife" an even pair, "what wife!" third element, disorder. "I have no wife" final negation answering the third element, expanded to a diabolical five by the neutral initial element. Same structure with "a huge eclipse" (expanded element, rather neutral) "of sun and moon" (even pair) "the affrighted globe" (third expanded element, disturbed) "yawn at alteration" (fifth element, echo of the first one expanded by a verb expressing horror, fright, awe, etc). Three expanded, disorder, and two even in the center or nearly.
And the same architecture is used in the concluding remark by Othello after stabbing himself with his dagger and before dying: OTHELLO: I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee: no way but this; Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.. First a transitively symmetrical couple "I kiss'd thee" "I kill'd thee", then a disturbing inversion of that transitive symmetry into specular symmetry "killing myself" that disturbs the preceding pair, a disturbance that is amplified by "to die upon" to end up with the fifth element which is the second element of the second pair that is specularly symmetrical to the first one, a second pair that loses the transitive syntactic symmetry of the first pair. Perfect disorder in a regular architecture.
This great art is at the service of a phenomenally sinister drama or tragedy that expounds the irresponsibility of people one to the other and also one to oneself. Their love is rotten by their jealousy. Their value is rotten by their sensitiveness. Human and social peace is rotten by the desire of some to do evil onto others for their sole profit. The welfare of other people and oneself is rotten by the ambition of one who cannot dream himself at a deserved place and wants to be in the place of one's higher-ups. It definitely sounds like pure democratic multiparty politics. Who is the ass and who is the Dumbo? Free for you to choose, but both are dingo Goofy-goofs. But I must admit Anthony Hopkins in Othello is outstandingly provocative. Othello was the role Hopkins always wanted to play. But Hopkins is the actor Shakespeare had dreamed of (being?) all his life.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
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