Nice guys don’t always finish last

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Gordon Jones
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Cassio rises to power amid the many tragedies in ‘Othello’

Bethany Jillard (left) as Desdemona, Brad Hodder as Cassio and Deborah Hay as Emilia in “Othello.” — Submitted photo by Michael Cooper

By Gordon Jones

Special to The Telegram

Having visited Niagara-on-the-Lake back in June, reviewing two plays in the Shaw Festival, I felt duty-bound to check out a couple of the Shakespeare offerings at the Stratford Festival.

So, last week I found myself in Stratford (Ont., not U.K.) for the opening nights of “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice,” the former featuring a Newfoundland actor in his second season at the festival, Brad Hodder in the role of Cassio, loyal Lieutenant to Othello, Venice’s military bulwark against the Turkish empire.

A fortuitous — and excitingly staged — storm at sea sinks the Turkish fleet. But the Turk is within this tale of interracial love and marriage.

Sabotaged by the envy and malevolence of Iago, his Ancient (ensign), Othello’s gullibility and amorous innocence lead to his strangling his guiltless wife, Desdemona, believing her guilty of infidelity with lady’s-man Cassio (untrue, though Hodder’s debonair Cassio clearly has a soft spot for Desdemona).

Performed on the proscenium stage of the Avon Theatre, which is also the venue of “Tommy,” much of the lighting and technical equipment had been pre-empted by the mega-musical, so that the “Othello” crew needed to survive on technical short commons. They did so with brilliant lighting, sound, and set design by Michael Walton, Thomas Ryder and Julie Fox, respectively.

Two massive walls with aperture and a slanted, moveable platform are drenched blood-red. Action is highlighted by slashing beams of light from all directions.

In this play in which so much of the action takes place at night, lanterns and candles, hand-held torches and flambeaux strive to pierce the darkness, casting long and monstrous shadows.

Chiaroscuro lighting pushes us back century upon century in a savagely visual and imaginative son et lumiere production.

The plot of “Othello” is driven (one might almost say “created”) by the paranoid antagonist — who has more lines than the nominal protagonist.

As in “Richard III,” the morally deformed Iago is used as narrator and interpreter, confiding in and co-opting the audience, turning us, if not into accomplices, then certainly into voyeurs.

But to trusting, credulous Othello (an authoritative Dion Johnstone, in his eighth season in the Festival, who skillfully charts the decline from reason to madness), his Ancient is “honest” Iago, an adjective that rings mockingly through the play.

Despite his special narrative and interpretive status, Graham Abbey’s Iago refrains from nudging and winking and milking the privileged part, remaining outraged, determined and stolid, unremarkable and unflamboyant in drab brown costume.

He is complemented by Deborah Gray’s lively rendering of his forthright wife, Emilia, Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting and confidante, who fatefully surrenders to her husband the strawberry-embroidered handkerchief that Othello gave to his sweetheart before their marriage.

Bethany Jollard is a radiant and confident Desdemona, more assured than many of her predecessors.

Once she falls into disfavour with her credulous husband, the characterization is softened and made more poignant, culminating in the touching scene in which she gently and hesitantly sings the melancholy “willow” song of lost love, in the sparsely furnished bedroom, dominated by towering white drapes surrounding the marriage bed in which she is shortly to be strangled.

And who is the beneficiary of Desdemona’s murder, of Emilia’s demise at the hands of Iago, of the death of gull Roderigo, also slain by Iago, and of self-slaughtered Othello? It is Cassio, who is appointed lord governor of Cyprus in place of dead Othello.

Nice guys, it seems, aren’t always losers.

Directed by Chris Abraham, “Othello” runs two or three times a week until Oct. 19. Tomorrow, I will report on the second Stratford play I saw, “The Merchant of Venice.”

Organizations: Avon Theatre

Geographic location: Venice, Stratford, Niagara-on-the-Lake Newfoundland Cyprus

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