A new Othello: when tragedy turns comic
From Cirque du Soleil to Shakespeare: La Carpintería’s contemporary staging is a winnerIs it possible to make a comedy out of a Shakesperean tragedy and hit the mark? Is it possible to laugh about betrayal and murder in the terms the Bard wrote about them, while still respecting the original text? The most obvious answer would be “no” but renowned Argentine clown Gabriel Chamé Buendia — a former member of Cirque du Soleil — has turned it into an emphatic “yes.” As translator, adaptor and director, he has created an excellent version of Othello, the Moor of Venice that respects the whole play, step-by-step.
Chamé says that the idea that “what is comic is tragic, and so tragic that it becomes comic” worked as a motto for his Othello adaptation. But, according to critic Harold Bloom, a great Shakespeare specialist, while some of the playwright’s works usually labelled as tragedies can also show the persistence of tragicomedy “only Othello and Coriolanus exclude all laughter.” This declaration could have left Chamé’s project falling apart but, luckily, this did not happen at all. The end result is a wonderful demonstration of how a classic can still be a classic, even if it is updated from a contemporary perspective.
This Othello lasts almost two hours but feels only half that length, thanks to the director’s lucid perspective and the performance of a talented cast, trained in physical theatre, clown and burlesque (Matías Bassi, Julieta Carrera, Hernán Franco and Martín López Carzoglio). It never loses rhythm or agility.
Except for Bassi, who plays Othello, the other actors perform more than one character, throwing themselves into the men or women of Shakespeare’s play, no matter the performer’s sex. Their acting in these roles is so good that when the performance is over, and they come out for the final round of applause, one expects a dozen actors to show up but there are, amazingly, just four. Along the same lines, with just a few props, the actors create different landscapes such as the canals of Venice or the sea of Cyprus, with just a cloth — a cloth that has other functions too, according to the scene. Wooden cubes are turned into tables, thrones or swimming suits. Another resource which contributes to the playful air of this version is the use of a live camera especially for Iago’s soliloquies, which deliver the play’s old words to the audience, via this modern device. But above all, this adaptation of Othello is incredibly fun (and funny). The Bard’s lines are there (as is his image — a picture of him hangs on one side of the stage so we can worship the master from time to time during the performance). The physical attitudes and the intonations are also there (as well as other subtle, hilarious inclusions, some including local humour and even a cumbia) prompting people to laugh until they cry . These also expose that we are in the theatre, indicating the difficulties of staging a Shakespeare play. But all this does not become a hindrance to feeling, say, rejection over Iago’s evilness (as well as fascination with his “diabolical stage-manager” qualities and the way he “weaves his spiderweb”), pity at Othello’s fall or compassion for Desdemona’s fate. The cruelty of one of the final scenes, when Othello kills Desdemona in a terrible, violent, gender-specific act, is intact, and it becomes even more shocking when contrasted with the previous amusing incidents. Though it may sound paradoxical, laughter eventually becomes a useful way of keeping distance from and reflecting on the ultimate meanings of the play.
Chamé explores — avoiding solemnity — the connection between tragedy and comedy as the key to approach classic, as well as contemporary, theatre. He thinks that “what happens in Othello is still current today and to stage it in Argentina poses questions about love, loyalty, racism, domestic violence, envy, jealousy, scientific coldness and/or bloody belief. What does a black man, a liar or a vengeance mean to us?”
Thomas Rymer wrote towards the close of the seventeenth century that Othello is a “bloody farce.” He expressed himself by saying “Shakespeare-as-comedian rides Iago.” And it is clearer now, more than ever, that tragedy cannot be read or staged in the same way today than it was in the times of the Greeks or the Elizabethans. And not even as it was interpreted during the beginning of the 20th century.
In this sense, Georgian Robert Sturua explained that his version of Eugene O’Neill’s tragedy Mourning Becomes Electra for the Teatro San Martín became a “tragifarce” because “the violence and cruelty became an everyday feature in our lives... (the)death of people turned into a usual event... everything became simpler, and for that reason, even though it may seem strange, more ironic, and sometimes, even more ridiculous.”
Precisely because it is a classic, Othello can be read and staged today with different perspectives which have emerged after the time it was written (and that is the way of keeping faithful to its essence, not by pursuing archeological versions).
In his Shakespeare, our contemporary Ian Kott quotes commentators who said — referring to villain Iago — “that there is something disinterested in his hate. Iago hates first, and only then seems to invent reasons for his hate. Coleridge’s description hits the nail on the head: “(the) motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity.”
Following Hannah Arendt, and relatively speaking, Iago can be read today in the light of her ideas about the banality of evil, because his motivations do not seem to be so strong for such a vengeance. According to Chamé Buendía, “Othello is an evil illusion; when you get closer to it, you see nothing but sand. Or your own tragicomedy.” Maybe this “clown” version is a good way to put the piece into another perspective, and after the last grain of sand has flown through the hourglass of the performance, go beyond that illusory essence of every theatre play, seize its most profound foundations and reflect on how they are still relevant today in our lives.
Othello is being staged every Thursday at 9pm and every Saturday at 7.30pm at La Carpintería, Jean Jaurès 858.