Recently our Artistic Learning department sat down with Eric Ting to discuss our upcoming production of Othello. Eric’s Cal Shakes directorial debut begins performances September 14.
Artistic Learning: How will you stage this play to be relevant to the current cultural dialogues about racial injustice and identity? Will you use a modern setting?
Eric Ting: We’re imagining our audience sharing the space with a company of modern day actors who investigate/interrogate the classical story of Shakespeare’s Othello through a contemporary lens, trying to understand how this problem play lives as a reflection of some of the challenges we face in American society today.
AL: Directors must frequently choose a specific focus from such a large and complex play. Are you coming at it as a domestic tragedy, a political firestorm, an examination of psychological manipulation–what’s the core idea you want to illustrate to the fullest in this production?
ET: All of the above. Religion is certainly surfaced in our choice to reflect Othello as a Muslim—though even that identity is sublimated in this story (because when we encounter Othello he has “converted to Christianity” we think to better assimilate into Venetian society). Politics exist not so much as a manifestation of the war with the Ottomites (like much of the wars the US fights today, that war is backgrounded to the more domestic concerns of the drama); but rather we will be exploring the presence of a political figure like Donald Trump and asking how that injection of volatile political rhetoric might pave the way for more manifest examples of xenophobia, releasing years of pent up race-hatred (i.e.: Iago). Lastly, Othello is a play about two marriages, a domestic tragedy writ large about the daily battles wrought “in the name of love”—love of God, love of Country, love of each other.
AL: How are you directing the actors to handle the language in this play? The language sometimes floats in eloquent verse, and sometimes explodes in very direct insults that might be very offensive if said to someone today. What does it take to have an actor move between these ways of speaking, and how do you want the audience to hear and understand these different expressions?
ET: My impulse is always to play against the poetry of Shakespeare’s language. The words themselves elevate his plays to soaring heights, but when actors indulge in that poetry it often sends the plays into a more melodramatic space. He wrote in blank verse, and as such, his writing is all the more remarkable for its construction—vivid, honest language held to a rigorous form. It’s that pursuit of surfacing the familiar, the banal, the human in Shakespeare’s plays that also—I believe—demand that we not try to censor the very real prejudices that have existed across time, from Shakespeare’s Venice to our communities today.
AL: Is there any comic relief in this play? Should there be?
ET: Yes. And absolutely. Comedy accentuates tragedy, like salt with chocolate. Certainly there’s a lovely scene that we begin with: two men, ugly drunk, commiserating late one night about the unfairness of the world. But also: Shakespeare writes into the play a “CLOWN” character that, to my eyes, is not particularly funny (HA!). So we’ve made a production choice to replace those clown scenes with a series of jokes—the sort of jokes that accentuate our society’s treatment of outsiders, the sort of humor that “others” us.
AL: Okay, the ultimate question–are you more drawn to Othello, or Iago? Why?
ET: Mmmm. Good Question. I think the one doesn’t exist without the other, no? It’s almost biblical, the conflict between these two—like Cain and Abel.