How did it occur to you to treat Othello the character as suffering from PTSD?
Early on in the play there’s a speech in which Othello is pleading innocent to charges of witchcraft that have been leveled against him by Brabantio, Desdemona’s father. And Brabantio says, There’s no way my sweet little daughter would ever have married such an old black guy if it weren’t for witchcraft. In answer to these charges, Othello says, All I did was tell her war stories.
And these war stories included such items as the fact that Othello was conscripted into being a mercenary soldier at age seven; he was a child soldier. He was a prisoner of war for a time. He was impressed into slavery for a time. He faced experiences like living among cannibals. We later hear from Iago that Othello experienced a dear friend of his being literally blown out from right next to him in battle.
Most of these stories are told in the safety of Western Europe, in Venice. Then the play moves to Cyprus—“the mouth of the dog” (as a contemporary Western European historian called the Muslim world). It’s when Othello gets to Cyprus that he starts to act crazy. He becomes insanely jealous. And it’s not just Othello; it’s also Casio. He seems to be very much under control in Western Europe in Venice, where they are initially stationed and where Othello and Desdemona get married. They go on a sea journey, through a tempest, and when they get to Cyprus, Casio’s alcoholism kicks in. He drinks and gets into a brawl. Iago’s vengefulness toward Othello kicks into high gear as well.
Another other factor on my mind was recent events—the Navy Yard shootings a few years ago; the Boston marathon bombing; Littleton, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut.
To me the central question of the play is, How can such an such evil exist in our midst? How can one of our own turn on us? We just don’t know. I started thinking about the very closely knit community in Othello the play. Virtually all the characters except for Desdemona and Bianca are military or civilian advisers. How can such a tightknit community experience such evil in their midst? What if we stage the play as an investigation into what happened and why? So the triggering mechanism of the journey from the safety and security of Western Europe into the middle of a war zone—and suddenly people start to act uncharacteristically crazy—that started me seeing the play as an instance of post-traumatic stress disorder as we would say today.
How are you going to achieve that investigation, which is not the structure of the play as it is written?
As written the play unfolds in real time in chronological order. We will explore the play as an inquest into the nature of evil, as if all of these events have happened in the recent past. On the evening of a memorial service for all of the people who have been killed, and all the havoc that’s been wreaked, this tightknit community decides that they’re going to take matters into their own hands and investigate what happened in their midst. The play then becomes an instance of not only a few characters’ post-traumatic stress disorder but a whole community experiencing and trying to grapple with it.
What will be the setting and the visual motif of the production?
I always start with the text and my reading of it to figure out what was in Shakespeare’s head. Shakespeare didn’t care much about actual geography or chronology. In Othello the journey from Venice to Cyprus seems to take place in a matter of hours when it would have been many days in Shakespeare’s time. And I was struck by the fact that in Shakespeare’s day most of the major battles—partly because England is an island nation—took place at sea. So rather than set the play in the world of artillery or infantry, I thought, Wouldn’t it be interesting to explore it in a contemporary military and nautical world, something Marine-ish or Navy-ish.
In Othello the sea battle in Cyprus never takes place because wind blows the Muslim Ottoman fleet off course and destroys them—as happened during Shakespeare’s time with the Spanish Armada (it wasn’t so much that the British conquered them than that winds killed them). So Shakespeare’s interest in that is not historical; it’s psychological, or almost mystical—that is, it’s a journey through a tempest, which as we know from The Tempest or from King Lear is always a potent metaphor for him.
The idea of telling the story backward, in retrospect, gives us license in reenacting it to set it anywhere. The challenge of doing it in the cozy confines of Theatre on the Run is that you have to find a unit set that will work; there’s not a whole lot of room to move scenery in and out, which I like, actually. I like finding a central metaphor for a particular production and going with it. The governing metaphor for the world of this play is that these people are meeting late at night without permission in the control room of some sort of nautical vessel—a ship, a submarine. The whole play is a psychological journey; it’s not a literal journey. We don’t have to adhere too closely to the kind of literal facts that Shakespeare didn’t care about, so we won’t. The basic world of this play will be like a conning tower control room or a nuclear submarine or a ship at sea or a ship docked somewhere.
The first scene, which is between Iago and Roderigo, will likely take place via some sort of surveillance cam; there will be video footage shown on surveillance camera as if it’s captured in some entranceway or elevator or convenience store, and they’re plotting. This will be by way of saying, This is what you did; we have you red-handed; now just tell us why. And that’s really what the play is. More than a whodunit—most audience members know that already—it’s a whydunit. It’s a psychological thriller.
What kind of experience can the audience expect from the show?
Ultimately it’s a tragedy. It’s very wrenching and sad what happens to this glorious couple, this marriage between Desdemona and Othello. They are star-crossed lovers, ill-fated, because he’s from a different culture. He is military through and through; he is not used to being in civilian clothing in civilian territory. He is much older than she is. She on the other hand had many other suitors, turned them all down and chose Othello. There are glimpses of what those two are to each other and could have been to each other. Some of the most beautiful and heightened poetry that Shakespeare ever wrote about relationships exists in the brief exchanges between Othello and Desdemona and in words that they use about each other. It’s a very moving love story. These are two who should’ve been able to overcome these odds and create one of the great marriages, one of the great romances of all literature. And it was shipwrecked by one guy’s machinations. So experiencing that story—along with the meta-story of what happened and why—is a large part of the journey of this play.
For complete performance schedule and ticket availability, call 703-418-4808 or click here.