The Staatstheater in Saarbrücken, Germany makes an impressive venue for any show – a hulking Gothic exterior overlooking a bend in the river; plush carpets with gold finish throughout and an impossibly heavy-looking chandelier dominating enough to make even Sia think twice. But for Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy, racism and xenophobia it seems a particularly appropriate venue: the theatre was a gift from Hitler to the city in 1938 as a distraction from the mass deportation of Jews and other undesirables that took place that same year in the state of Saarland. Despite the murky history of the building, Dagmar Schliegmann’s Othello has achieved a modern and biting take on Othello that speaks more to a dystopian future than the horrors of the past.
Barely visible through smoke for much of the play’s first act, Sabine Mader’s set design is deliberately unsettling. The enormous wave of wood that tapers seamlessly downstage requires the actors to constantly totter and move around to keep their balance, serving to accentuate both comedy, in the case of Yevgenia Korolov’s high-heel-wearing Bianca, and fear, as with the insane dances of Ali Berber’s Othello. At each side a pair of tables stand with microphones on them, reminiscent of a 1950s radio studio. From here characters, most notably Nina Schopka’s Iago, can watch over the action of the stage and give narration or commentary into the microphones. The invocation of 1984’s Big Brother is clear and disconcerting; immersed in the action of the stage, the audience were often jolted awake to Iago’s control of the action and the inevitability of the play’s climax when a comment from Iago himself boomed out from a speaker.
The costuming matches the set dressing’s tone. Most characters wear simple plain white and black, matching bowler hats, reminiscent of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Only the female characters get some release to this; Vanessa Czapla’s Desdemona appears in a succession of youthful-looking and attractive dresses, consciously ostracising her from the uniform simplicity of the soldiers around her. This goes well with Czapla’s performance; she plays the piece as understated and naïve, never quite twigging to Othello’s jealousy or his motivations thereof until it is too late. She is the tragic heroine in a world of selfish men and the performance is heartbreaking.
But it was the performance of Schopka as Iago that stole the show. The choice to cast a woman as Iago could so easily have become gimmicky, but the cold intensity of her performance ensured no-one was laughing. Schliegmann subverted gender in the show by keeping the script refer to Iago as a “he” and keeping Emilia, his wife, female as well – portrayed in all her complexity by Christiane Motter, callously hypocritical when she finds and hides Desdemona’s handkerchief and utterly destroyed when her husband dismisses her affections. Schopka plays Iago as a woman though, and another layer of jealousy and sexual confusion was added in the suggestion throughout that Iago’s jealousy of Othello might in fact have to do with a sexual attraction. At a point of Othello’s most wild despair; Iago admires his writhing shirtless body from across the stage and then is physically excited when the Moor, in gratitude to Iago’s saving him from his wife’s apparent infidelity, kisses Iago on the lips. Like any villain of a dystopian world, she hates and requires attention from all around her – and Schopka draws this line beautifully.
Less astonishing was the performance of Berber’s Moor himself. Again, Schliegmann is trying to make a social commentary through his casting: instead of a black actor, he cast an actor of Middle Eastern origins. In the midst of the refugee crisis in Germany and with Saarland feeling the brunt of it, watching characters spit on and ostracise an Arab on stage was clearly supposed to say something about German society in 2017. Unfortunately Berber’s performance lacked the nuance for the point to come across. The suggestion through the direction and (arguably) the original script – that Othello is a character as sane as any white man but driven mad by his manipulation by Iago – is lost in the craziness of Berber’s performance. He spends most of the first act violently kissing Desdemona, and then the rest of the play berating her and becoming more and more insane and unintelligible. There appeared to be no crossover at all and the reasons that he so blindly believes in Cassio (Cino Djavid) and Desdemona’s affair are unclear. When the physical evidence of the handkerchief emerges – the point in the Bard’s play where Othello finally loses his doubts – Berber could simply go no further into the realm of insanity. Instead he flops down on a sofa to weep violently, perhaps exhausted by stomping around the stage for an hour and a half.
Despite this, Othello is well worth a watch. The mood of the space that Schliegmann created has stuck with me for many days after seeing it and the tragedy of the final scenes is in no way curtailed by Othello’s overacting – indeed, it perhaps adds something as Berber is forced to slow down to deliver Shakespeare’s last, most wretched, lines of dialogue. Within this building, it is easy to think of images of men, women and children being led away to their fate with no control over what would happen. As Othello is led onto the dark stage by Iago in the final scene in order to kill his wife and seal his own fate – beyond any hope of escape, beyond understanding why he is there – this image becomes horrifyingly fitting.