February 18

April 10, 2016

at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

by WIlliam Shakespeare
directed by Jonathan Munby

Q&A with the Director

Q. Jonathan, can we start by talking about your decision to place your production of Othello in the present?

A: It’s always important to me that we make the dialogue between actor and audience as immediate as it can be, that the major themes of the play resonate with us in the present tense. We certainly talked about going back to the original period in 1604—a fascinating, turbulent time in English politics with a new monarch and fear of the unknown resonating through the society. But doublets and hose distance a contemporary audience, and this play touches on too many issues that we are still wrestling with in society. I want to make this experience as immediate as possible so that we can’t shy away from it, that we can’t say ‘this is about a then and there,’ when actually what I want to say is that this play is about the here and now. I think this play speaks to the present like few plays do. You open the newspaper or turn on the news and some of the same questions are being asked that this play asks.


Q. And is this what draws you to the play?

A. I think Othello is a masterpiece, a study of human psychology: the power of manipulation and a study of sexual jealousy and what that can make us do. This play feels to me like one of the greatest psychological thrillers that has ever been written. The entire manipulation of this play is through the language—it’s an extraordinary thing to witness. I want our production to put a noose around the audience’s neck and tighten it. That is what I think this play should be.


Q. And so where will you be setting the production?

A. Whenever I change a play from its original period, I do so with some caution. I don’t want the setting to be too literal because the more literal you become, the more you pigeonhole the story and the less the play has room to breathe. We’ll be inventing a world. We’ll be inventing a Venice and the play’s other location in Cyprus. It will feel and look recognizable, a contemporary America and Mediterranean Europe, but it will inhabit its own world.


Q. Does the contemporary setting encourage you to make other nontraditional choices?

A. Yes, I think it does. The ruler of Venice, the duke, for example, is being played by Melissa Carlson. We used the audition process as an experiment to hear what it sounded like for a woman to speak these words and to be the one to negotiate this relationship between an angry father and his daughter. The moment Melissa started to utter this text, I realized how wonderfully contemporary it sounded, how much it resonated as an interpretation. There was something about the solidarity between that female duke and Desdemona—a senior woman defending the rights of this young woman. 


Q. What do you hope to portray in your Othello?

A. The whole play is a kind of deception. That deception is only interesting if Othello is as intelligent and strategic as his promotion and rank would suggest. Iago has to, therefore, work very hard. He plants the seed of something in Othello’s head and nurtures it, like a gardener planting a seed, watering and fertilizing it, growing this monstrous plant inside Othello that rips through the man’s skin and consumes his life. If you look at the concordance of this play and its word count, the word spoken most frequently, apart from 'now' and the characters’ names, is ‘jealousy.’ In fact, jealousy is mentioned more in this play than in any other in the canon. It’s truly a study of jealousy. 


Q. What about Iago?

A. Iago is an absolutely fascinating character. I see him almost as a sort of ‘lovechild’ of Angelo, Edmund and Richard III. He’s a professional soldier, yes, but there’s a sophistication to him, as well, and an intelligence that feels almost like Hamlet at times. The interior of this man is extraordinary—knotty, difficult, extraordinarily complex, and a real challenge for any director or actor that takes Iago on. Who is he and what drives him? What motivates him? What makes him do the extraordinary things that he does in this play? 

I think he is acutely aware of privilege, of a glass ceiling present in his life as he watches people all around him being promoted above him. I think Iago is a hard-working, probably brilliant soldier, who has reached the top of his career ladder simply because he, unlike Cassio, is not from a privileged background. Cassio was born with a silver spoon in his hand. And so I think it’s that glass ceiling as well as racism that are the two main drivers for Iago. He wants to see the downfall of both of them—Othello and Cassio. 


Q. As a frequent director of Shakespeare, do you hear Othello in dialogue with any other Shakespeare plays?

A. I’ve just directed The Merchant of Venice in London (which will be coming here to Chicago Shakespeare in August), and to work on these two plays in succession is such a privilege. It’s amazing how thematically both plays are about outsiders and very much resonate with one another—the threat of the alien ‘Other’ and how unresolved that presence is in our culture, still. We made the choice to portray Shylock without a dialect and as someone well assimilated into that culture, which seemed to reveal more strongly the hypocrisy of his treatment among his fellow Venetians. I think the same with Othello. Othello is both assimilated and rejected at the same time. There’s a wonderful tension within this play that speaks to a kind of hypocrisy, which I’m interested in having a debate about with this production. It’s a choice to portray Othello without a distinct dialect. He is ‘other’ enough. And he is acutely aware of his otherness and the society around him chooses to accept him or not when it suits. 



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