One might prefer Branagh's Iago, or Imogen Stubbs' Desdemona, or Olivier or Robeson's Othello, but word for word, gesture for gesture, and character for character, this is the finest production of Othello one can find. Janet Suzman, the director, has done a meticulous job of reading the text and of making every word count, without ever losing track of the main story. In particular, the relationship between Iago and Emilia is fully explored, making her final outburst an explosive mixture of an attempt to atone for her silence and the release of pent-up emotions arising from her abusive marriage.
Every single actor and actress hits his or her mark and invests every word with passion. There are no weak links here. Richard Haddon Haines' Iago is smooth and conciliatory with the characters on stage but sneering and hateful in his soliloquies which are delivered not as musings but as intimate confidences to the audience. His offhand and unprovoked destruction of Bianca underlines his randomly destructive nature. John Kani is a powerful Othello, despite being quite a small man compared to the other actors. His beautiful Bantu accent emphasizes how much of an outsider he is in the Venetian world. The searing pain he suffers as he is torn apart by conflicting emotions is exposed as a raw and bleeding wound.
This is a film of a production staged at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg before the fall of apartheid. The story of a black and white couple who ought to have had a joyful and perfect marriage being torn apart by vindictiveness, jealousy (for Iago is jealous of Othello), and racism resonated strongly with that audience. It also heightened the awareness of the actors of the emotional stakes being played for. But even without knowing why, it is apparent on the face of the play that the actors have invested it with the deepest possible significance.
As a play, this production was well-designed for an open thrust stage with a sparse multi-level set which conveyed the various scenes effectively. When filmed, the set was sometimes used to even better advantage, especially in suggesting the fleet at sea. However, the sound recording is quite uneven with some lines sounding as if they are being delivered from the bottom of a well or so muddied that it is difficult to make them out.
One small cavil--Suzman has Othello do himself in by stabbing himself in the neck. Such a wound would result in blood spraying everywhere, something neither practical to imitate nor satisfying artistically where it is desirable to keep Desdemona as white as possible. The lack of blood was not believable with that kind of wound. She should have had him stab himself somewhere further removed from main arteries.
Small objections indeed. This is far and away the most moving Othello going and is strongly recommended. The 9 out of 10 rating is really 9.5.
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