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Iago (Bob Hoskins) and a comrade-in-arms are outside the Venice home of Desdemona's father, Brabantio (Geoffrey Chater), who does not yet know that she has eloped with Othello (Sir Anthony Hopkins). Iago confides to his friend, who had hoped to marry Desdemona (Dame Penelope Wilton), that he serves Othello to further his own ends. Venice needs Othello to protect its commercial interests in Cyprus where the Turkish fleet is headed. Desdemona insists on going to Cyprus, too. In Cyprus, Iago plots to convince Othello that Desdemona has betrayed him with Cassio (David Yelland). A lot more than political ambition seems to be motivating Iago.Written by
Dale O'Connor <email@example.com>
A Really Great Star Performance, but the Othello is a Problem
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.
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