David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig bring exceptional technical skill and at times riveting commitment to the roles of Othello and Iago in the off-Broadway revival of the Shakespeare tragedy, which opened tonight at the New York Theatre Workshop. That should not surprise anyone familiar with the fact that the two actors famed for their screen work (Craig as James Bond; Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and currently seen as chess coach Robert Katende in Queen Of Katwe) also share a history of classical stage work and a longstanding devotion to the theater.
They could easily fill a Broadway theater for a run of the world’s best-known story of a venerated warrior manipulated into murder and self-destruction by the confidant whose pride is wounded when he’s passed over for a big promotion. Instead, working with director Sam Gold (Fun Home, The Flick), Oyelowo and Craig have taken the more intimate route into an always unsettling work. This is a modern-dress production that sets the drama in a plywood-walled military barracks with army cots (well, mattresses on the floor) and communications gadgetry suggesting the mobile Cyprus encampment (Andrew Lieberman and Jane Cox are responsible for the deliberately makeshift set and lighting) where the highly decorated Moor of Venice and his troops have been dispatched to assert Venetian authority. The audience members sit in bleachers on either side, close to the action.
This doesn’t do much for the play’s crucial opening scenes in Venice, where Desdemona’s (a winningly animated Rachel Brosnahan, of Patriot’s Day and House Of Cards) secret marriage to Othello is revealed to her scandalized father Brabantio (stolid Glenn Fitzgerald). He accuses the general of using charms and spells to seduce his daughter. Oyelowo’s intensity is conveyed in Othello’s humorous and self-regarding yet fully assured defense, as he argues that his “magic” consisted of the tales of battlefield derring-do he’d regaled her noble father with over the years: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed,” he says. “And I loved her that she did pity them. This only is the witchcraft I have used.” To which the Duke (David Wilson Barnes) responds, “I think this tale would win my daughter, too.”
Against all this, Iago is virtually a peripheral figure, falsely conspiring with the gullible and Desdemona-besotted Roderigo (Matthew Maher). I’m hardly the first to point out that Othello is in fact Iago’s play and Shakespeare’s more complete creation. Iago plants the seeds of jealousy in Othello’s naïve heart, suggesting that Michael Cassio (the fine Finn Wittrock), the very man he’s just promoted, is cuckolding him. In his fatugues and t-shirt, Craig is thickly muscled and shorn, military style, barely standing out in the beefcake crowd of fellow fighters. This Iago is a slithery snake, quiet, tightly wound and lethal.
But he’s also a cipher. What’s missing in the performance is the caustic burn of evil that drives Iago, whose vengeance is directed at Othello, but not exclusively: He hates the world. (In their great opera, Verdi and Boito left nothing to the imagination with Iago’s “Credo.”)
What seems like a determined lack of connection with evil is not the only off-note of Gold’s production. It seems designed to disengage the audience at every turn. The opening is set in near darkness, as are other scenes; the lighting is maddening mish-mash of overhead fluorescence, hand-held flashlights and helmet-mounted LEDs. Marsha Stephanie Blake, as Iago’s wife and unwitting accomplice, springs to life in the closing scene, in which Emilia bravely and suicidally exposes her husband’s treachery. Nikki Massoud, as Cassio’s prostitute girlfriend Bianca is more of a stereotype. Neither actress can break through in this macho environment — which again may be Gold’s point, but it makes for a certain dullness in the story-telling.
Oyelowo, however, builds in near-terrifying power to the play’s complicated climax, in which Othello is unmasked as both dupe and fool for his brutality (“Then must you speak of one that loved not wisely, but too well; of one not easily jealous…”) and yet still manages to invoke our sympathy. It’s a deeply felt cry of the heart that ultimately loses its power in the absence of horror that ought to have accumulated in the fateful pile-up of Iago’s amoral crimes. Instead, he just disappears, leaving the corpses of Othello and Desdemona (and poor Emilia) in the fading light.
This is not the only Othello game in town. What might be described as another modern-dress interpretation of the play is running at the Westside Theatre, and it’s a lot more entertaining. Othello The Remix is a condensed hip-hop version of the tragedy written, composed and directed by the Q Brothers, GQ and JQ, who were responsible for the very popular Bomb-itty Of Errors. Here, Othello (Postell Pringle) is a rap star who marries a girl from his entourage and gives career-making second billing to Cassio (Jackson Doran), a Justin Bieber type, to the outrage of Iago (GQ). They all work for the record label mafioso Loco Vito (JQ).
In this interpretation, Desdemona appears only as a pillow on a bed, and the other roles are taken by these four actors. The rapping incorporates enough of Shakespeare’s language to give the show a surprising heft and consistency, and the compression is at once hilarious and respectful. Most important, GQ’s Iago is more recognizable as an amoral force hellbent on destruction. I found myself more engaged in the Othello/Iago/Desdemona triangle here than I was downtown. The show is co-produced by John Leguizamo, and it’s rich.