Review essay: Othello at the Abbey and Shakespeare in Ireland

Review essay by Edel Semple

Othello at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin (Dir. Joe Dowling) – May 2016

Cast and production details:


At the UCD / Abbey Shakespeare talk in the Pearse Museum, actor Owen Roe discussed with the audience a concern that sometimes rears its head when Irish theatres tackle the works of the world’s most famous author. In the rehearsal room, Roe told us, Irish actors and directors express an anxiety about ‘doing Shakespeare’, and sometimes even theatre reviewers voice a scepticism about the effective staging of Shakespeare in Ireland, with Irish creative producers for Irish audiences. Some of the anxiety stems from a worry that English actors have an innate understanding of Shakespeare (this anxiety isn’t unique to the Irish; American actors also experience it, as noted in Al Pacino’s Shakespeare documentary Looking for Richard.) Familiarity and saturation are also issues; Shakespeare is England’s greatest literary export and, with the popularity of Shakespeare productions by the BBC, RSC, and the Globe Theatre, and the prominence of great British Shakespearean actors like Judi Dench and Ian McKellan, we are accustomed to hearing his works performed in RP or in some variety of an ‘English accent’. As demonstrated by Roe’s compelling reading of Shakespearean excerpts in different Irish accents, we can easily overcome this last obstacle – once you tune in, listening to Shakespeare in an Irish accent sounds as good, and as natural, as hearing The Playboy of the Western World performed in a Mayo accent. Moreover, the endurance of Irish interest in Shakespeare and the long tradition of Shakespearean production in Ireland should put any other fears to bed.

As recent public lectures by Prof. Andy Murphy and Prof. Emeritus Ger Fitzgibbon have shown, Shakespeare is woven into the political foundations and literary fabric of our nation. Many of the 1916 rebels, such as Padraig Pearse, were Shakespeare enthusiasts, and authors such as Sean O’Casey, W. B. Yeats, G. B. Shaw, and Oscar Wilde, to name but a few, were influenced by and wrote about Shakespeare. Ireland has produced several eminent Shakespearean scholars too; Edmond Malone, born in 1741 in Dublin, is still renowned as an editor of Shakespeare, while the celebrated Victorian critic, Edward Dowden, was born in Cork in 1843 and began his education at Queen’s College Cork (now UCC). When Israel Gollancz assembled A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, a limited edition collection to celebrate the tercentenary in 1916, there were two Irish contributions; a poem in Irish from Douglas Hyde entitled ‘How it fared with a Gael at Stratford-on-Avon’ and a short essay on ‘Shakespeare and Ireland’ from D. H. Madden, a former MP and current Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin.

A Book of Homage - Gollancz - 1916

Gollancz’s A Book of Homage to Shakespeare

There is also a long tradition of Irish actors performing Shakespeare to great acclaim. To cherry pick just two stage actors from across the centuries: In the eighteenth century, the Donegal-born actor Charles Macklin was renowned for his performance of Iago, Malvolio, and Macbeth, and his 1741 portrayal of Shylock as a tragic figure was celebrated as ground-breaking. Macklin often collaborated with the renowned theatrical impresario and actor David Garrick, and the duo had a lasting influence on the development of acting styles and theatre in the period. Born in Limerick in 1857, actress Ada Rehan was celebrated in the US and Europe for her performance of roles such as Viola, Rosalind, and Katherina. (Such was her fame that a World War II ship was named in her honour.)

Charles_Macklin_by_John_Opie and Ada Rehan as Viola - Folger Digital Images Collection.jpg

Ada Rehan as Viola (Folger Shakespeare Library) and Charles Macklin

More recently, Cork’s Camille O’Sullivan has toured the globe with the RSC in an award-winning one-woman show of The Rape of Lucrece, and in 2015 DruidShakespeare toured Ireland, visited New York, and RTÉ screened a documentary on their production of the history tetralogy. Notably, the current production of The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has an Irish director and all-Irish cast. The play’s action has also been transported from Padua to Ireland in Easter 1916 (and quite effectively, if early reports are anything to go by.) Shakespeare has even been successfully reworked to form new plays; Siren Productions staged A Tender Thing (which saw Romeo and Juliet as elderly lovers) in 2014 and PanPan’s Everyone Is King Lear In His Own Home played at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2012. On the small and big screen, Shakespeare has been performed by actors such as Micheál Mac Liammóir, Cyril Cusack, Fiona Shaw, and, most recently, Michael Fassbender and Jack Reynor. (Mac Liammóir even wrote of his experiences of playing Iago in Welles’ 1952 film in the memoir Put Money in Thy Purse: The Filming of Orson Welles’ Othello.) At this moment, the British Council and Queen’s University Belfast are celebrating Shakespeare 400 with a touring exhibition on the work of Belfast-born actor and director Sir Kenneth Branagh, whose films include Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet.

MacLiammoir - Put Money - and Branagh British Council exhibit.jpg

Mac Liammoir’s memoir and the British Council / QUB ‘Shakespeare Lives through Kenneth Branagh’ exhibition (Photo credit: British Council)

On Irish stages, Shakespeare has been performed since at least the seventeenth century. Taking Othello as an example; there are records of a performance of Othello in 1662 in Smock Alley, and over 400 productions of the tragedy were staged in Dublin between 1662 and 1904. (For details, see the ‘Shakespearean Performance in Dublin 1660 to 1904’ project.) Othello has been performed by amateur groups too, such as the Cork Shakespearean Company (founded in 1924), and by university drama societies, and the play is a staple in the education sector; Cyclone Rep’s ‘Shakespeare Sessions’ has brought the play to secondary school audiences, while Fíbín, an Irish-language theatre company, staged the play for Leaving Cert students in 2014.

Smock Alley Theatre Dublin - since 1662

Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin

With such a long and illustrious history of Irish interest in and performance of Shakespeare, and with a tapestry of connections linking Shakespeare with Irish politics, education, and art, the Abbey’s Othello makes for a fine contribution to our island’s theatrical tradition. Directed by Joe Dowling, this production is a confident and polished iteration of the four hundred year old tragedy. At the play’s opening, an enormous disc bearing an image of St. Mark’s lion was suspended over the stage and this set the action firmly in Venice. To quibble here on the set design: in comparison to the Italian city, the setting of Cyprus was only hinted at through lighting, with the backdrop becoming a washed-out dawn or a red sunset as the scene required. With such a spartan stage, an object more solid or an image more defining of the Cypriot island would have been welcome. Having experimented with an apron for their 2013 Lear, the stage has also received a makeover for Othello. Transformed into a thrust stage, the Abbey’s playing space now has the audience seated on three sides; this proved to be a successful and fitting arrangement that highlighted the oppressive atmosphere of the play. Thus, up close and personal when Iago divulged his plans, when Othello collapsed in a fit, and when Desdemona died on her marriage bed, we sat as judges and voyeurs of Shakespeare’s most domestic tragedy.

Abbey - Venetian senate - 2016

The Venetian Senate (Photo credit: Abbey Theatre Facebook)

Packed with suited politicians and a benevolent-but-inept Duke, the Venetian senate was reminiscent of the Dáil (cue a chuckle as the senators blustered about in ignorance and squabbled childishly.) Everyone, from statesmen to soldier, was accepting of Desdemona and Othello’s inter-racial marriage and pleased at the couple’s displays of love, except Brabantio (whose puce-faced racist interjections made the PC politicians wince) and the comical sap Roderigo. Roderigo was dressed and acted like an extra from West Side Story (I expected him to snap his fingers and break into ‘When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet’ at any moment). So pathetic was Roderigo’s love-sickness and so easily was he manipulated by the savvy Iago that he often added a desirable levity to break the building tension. Iago’s power over the gullible youth was so strong that it seemed he could persuade him towards anything. For instance, illustrating how Cassio and Desdemona’s “breaths embraced together”, Iago pulled Roderigo close enough to kiss him. This prospect dangled tantalisingly before Roderigo’s starstruck eyes, before the homoeroticism was quashed with Iago’s smug pronouncement: “Villainous thoughts, Roderigo!”

Abbey - Iago and Roderigo - 2016

Marty Rea as Iago and Gavin Fullam as Roderigo (Photo credit: Abbey Theatre Facebook)

Marty Rea’s Iago made the stage machiavel a familiar, but terrifyingly capable, ‘cute hoor’. Played as Northern Irish, Iago was quick off the mark and his accent underlined the sarcasm in his comments (“Cassio’s a proper man”.) To kickstart the night-time brawl that would see Cassio lose his office, Iago wheeled in a drinks cart and, while soliloquising at the end of the scene, he snatched up a sandwich and a glass of wine. This neat action marked Iago as a skilled (he multi-tasked by plotting while eating) and self-serving schemer, casual in his villainy. Later, ever-practical, Iago pocketed the coins Othello had strewn at his wife’s feet. However, Iago’s lowly position in the army’s pecking order was illustrated when his superiors lost control. Cassio was a heartbreakingly genuine gentleman (his speech on his lost reputation was moving) and his affection for Desdemona was clear, but he made for a nasty drunk. Grabbing Iago around the neck, the inebriated Cassio announced “this is my ensign” with the same sense of ownership and command as when he proclaimed “this is my right hand, and this is my left”. In affairs of the mind though, Iago always had the upper hand. When Iago suggested that Othello strangle Desdemona in “the bed she hath contaminated”, he lurked at the general’s shoulder like a devil whispering in his ear. Unlike Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Othello had no ‘better angel’ to lure him from evil and he was pitifully alone as his ensign generated an unbalanced pyschomachia.

Abbey - Iago exulting 2016

Marty Rea as Iago (Photo credit: Abbey Theatre Facebook)

Peter Macon’s deep-voiced Othello bore the hint of a North African accent and, attired in his dress uniform, he cut an imposing figure as he fought his case before the Venetian senate. The scars on his head marked him out as an experienced soldier, though his love for Desdemona rendered him as gentle as a kitten. So happy were Othello and Desdemona, so pleased were they with one another, each time they cuddled like teenagers the characters onstage and the audience broke into a grin. However, while the play bears his name, Othello seemed to be increasingly side-lined as Iago’s fantasy took hold of his mind; gone was the great general, he was instead a twitching shell of a man no longer in control of his own life or even his own body. Othellos are often overshadowed by their Iagos, and that is perhaps a deliberate move on Shakespeare’s part; we see Iago’s machinations, as we do Richard III’s and Edmund’s, but we remain fascinated by such audacious malevolence, lured in as much as Othello.

Abbey - Othello in formal uniform 2016

Peter Macon as Othello in Venice (Photo credit: Abbey Theatre Facebook)

The play’s female triad were all Dubliners. Desdemona’s Southside accent, beautiful gowns, and playful teasing of Othello marked her as a kind of grown-up D4 debutante. Emilia was well-dressed and appeared like a middle-aged nanny, a companion rather than a maid. The power dynamic of her marriage was nicely established as, upon receiving a warm-welcome from Cassio, Emilia nervously looked at Iago, who was already watching her with a threatening expression. Emilia seemed fully aware of her husband’s flaws, but she was at the mercy of her sexual desire; rewarded with a deep kiss for surrendering the infamous handkerchief, she stumbled off stage in a daze of passion. While she prepared Desdemona for bed, the two women shared a beautiful moment of affection, making their imminent deaths all the more poignant. Seated on a bench on the sparse stage, the duo managed to create a perfect feeling of intimacy and friendship as they pondered their love lives and fates. The support and companionship exhibited by these upper class ladies provided a sharp contrast to the treatment of Bianca, who enjoyed no such solidarity or kindness from the Venetians. Liz Fitzgibbon’s Bianca had a loud voice and Northside accent, and she sported a boho dress and brazen attitude that marked her as indelibly different to the upper class Venetians. This Bianca was impossible to ignore, much to Cassio’s disappointment and to the audience’s amusement, and, I think, she will be hard to forget. The play did not conclusively come down on either side of the debate about Bianca’s identity; listed as a ‘courtesan’ in the dramatis personae only in the 1623 Folio printing of the play, in the Abbey production Iago labelled her a “hoor” (whore), but she acted more like a loyal if indiscreet mistress, and in 5.1 denied the appellation.

Abbey - Bianca and Cassio - 2016

Liz Fitzgibbon as Bianca and Barry John O’Connor as Cassio (Photo credit: Abbey Theatre Facebook)

To quibble once again on a matter of materiality and the limitations of the Abbey stage; for the play’s final scene, the arrival of a sleeping Desdemona in her bed was simply awkward. Although an effort was made to blend this piece of stage business in with the rest – the bed was carried on by actors in uniform – it was an inelegant move, out of place with the otherwise seamless action. Othello’s murder of his wife was uncomfortable viewing not only because of the innocence of the victim and the gullibility of her executioner, but due to our proximity to the sordid deed. In the aftermath of Desdemona’s death, Iago ran to exit but returned to stab Emilia; the fatal blow was delivered like the vengeful afterthought of a bold schoolboy. However, this action, like Othello’s suicide, was curiously clean and bloodless; presumably the practicalities of costuming and props over-ruled the play’s need for a “bloody” conclusion. A striking tableau closed out the tragedy; Othello lay dead by his wife, Emilia nearby, and Iago kneeled in tears (of remorse? relief? self-pity?), while the shocked and defeated Venetians could only look on and offer trite appraisals of the “heavy act[s]”.

Abbey - Desdemona in bed - 2016

Rebecca O’Mara as Desdemon (Photo credit: Abbey Theatre Facebook)

While the Abbey has staged one Shakespeare play annually in recent years, this was its first ever Othello and the production bodes well for the future of this tragedy and other Shakespearean dramas at our national theatre. Whatever anxieties we may have about ‘doing Shakespeare’ in Ireland, as the history outlined above shows and as the Abbey’s Othello and the myriad of productions, exhibitions, public lectures, and conferences around the country this year demonstrate, he is being ‘done’ and done well – here’s to the next four hundred years.

For more on Shakespeare 400 in Ireland see earlier posts and on Twitter: #ShaxIrl400 #Shakespeare400 #ShakespeareLives

Othello runs at the Abbey until 11th June 2016.

Related events of interest:

‘Talking Text Workshop’ on Othello at the Abbey on Saturday 28th May.

UCD / Abbey Shakespeare lecture by Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper (Head of Higher Education and Research, Shakespeare’s Globe) on ‘Gesture on the Shakespearean Stage’, accompanied by actor Marty Rea (currently playing Iago) on Friday 27th May, 4pm on the Abbey stage.


One thought on “Review essay: Othello at the Abbey and Shakespeare in Ireland

  1. Pingback: Report: ‘Gesture on the Shakespearean Stage’ – UCD / Abbey Theatre Shakespeare | Shakespeare in Ireland

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