Last year, N. saw two Shakespeare plays performed by college students: The Comedy of Errors and As You Like It. He very much enjoyed them both, so when presented with the opportunity to join my students in seeing Othello in London at the National Theatre, N. was adamant that he attend. We warned him that the play is a tragedy, and that several characters are killed on stage. He was undaunted, assuring us that he'd been to Carmen and that hadn't been too upsetting. So, with some trepidation, we took him to Othello last week. As has been Tim's approach with N.'s Shakespearean experiences, they did not read or study the play beforehand. I told N. the general outline of the plot, including Desdemona's murder.
Before we saw the play, we went on a backstage tour of the entire National Theatre complex, which N. loved. He was fascinated by the tour guide's account of flies and the "drum revolve" in the Olivier Theatre which can lower sets far below the stage. He loved seeing the rehearsal rooms and the props tables. In general , he was really interested in the architecture of the whole complex, an ugly concrete mass housing theatres that are decoratively minimalist (or even brutalist!) but effective as performance spaces.
The performance of Othello itself, of course, was powerfully acted and thoroughly upsetting to N. I think he ended up regretting his choice to attend, and Tim and I felt really bad that we had allowed him to go. He understood what was happening on stage quite clearly and was devastated by all the deaths, which were made even more frightening by the use of handguns rather than swords in this modern staging. He closed his eyes during parts of the final scenes. He and I both cried.
Though I felt like a bad parent for allowing him to view something so distressing, in the days since we saw the play, we've had lots of good conversations about it, about the purposes of tragedy, about jealousy, about war. One major achievement of this production is its minimization of race as a major element in the tragedy. Desdemona's father's racist reaction to his daughter's marriage is clearly disdained by the other leaders of Venice, and Iago is motivated less by racism than by envy of Cassio's promotion. Othello's murder of Desdemona is not accounted for by his racial identity, as has sometimes been the case in other productions. Even though the experience was intense and upsetting for him, I am glad that N.'s first encounter with this play was in this interpretation.
N. had been planning to join my students when they see Macbeth at The Globe Theatre next week, but after experiencing Othello, he changed his mind. And that's okay. He'll have other opportunities in his life to see good productions of Macbeth, I hope. And he's got some other good London theatre ahead of him this semester!