The 2019 Stratford Festival began as it should — with brilliant, innovative and daring Shakespeare.

Assured and athletic as the triumphant general, Michael Blake has the title role in Othello which opened Stratford’s 67th season on Monday, May 27 at the Festival Theatre. Othello’s director, Nigel Shawn Williams, dares to make the audience complicit as a laugh-getting and race-baiting Iago (Gordon S. Miller) plays out his scheme to steer Othello into a murderous and jealous rage over the imagined infidelity of Desdemona (Amelia Sargisson). That daring pays off as Iago’s asides pull us into his plot.

All three actors in this twisted triangle are terrific. Channeling such Shakespearean similars as Julius Caesar (eloquence, bravery and epilepsy) and his performance last year as Caliban (The Other, the monster, the gull), Blake conveys power and charisma and a fatal naïveté. He is an Othello whose valour as a Venetian general wins over the elite — even as one of its racist nobles rejects him as a son-in-law for his daughter, Desdemona.

Too late, Brabantio. Sargisson’s character has already wed Othello in a quiet ceremony off to one side of that famous thrust stage. Cue the racist rabble who babble objections as EDM beats thunder through the theatre.

Sargisson’s strong Desdemona is able to match Blake’s Othello until his volcanic madness kills both of them. Spoiler alert: Her death scene is horrifying and believable. In a recent production at Stratford, the way Desdemona died was on script, but not shocking except in an unsettling “Oh, she has another line or two” way. This time, the Shakespeare and the tragedy — and the violence of men against women — is right in front of us. No way to look away.

We have been played by Iago, too. Miller is bluff and engaging and funny as he pivots brilliantly en route to the bloody, nihilistic finale. In the Williams’ production, we are blameworthy bystanders or even worse, enablers or co-conspirators as too many of us are when similarly rough-edged Trump tweets or Ford fibs.

Also outstanding is Laura Condlln as Iago’s wife Emilia. Like many other characters, she is costumed in military camouflage but emerges from that anonymity to attack her abusive husband in a deadly confrontation. Johnathan Souza is strong as Othello’s favourite, Cassio, who is despicable even if we think we should be cheering his “integrity.”

The production is dedicated to the memory of Douglas Rain, a great actor and a friend of my late parents. That was a good reason for me to stand up and applaud.

You will want to see Othello because of…

All the excellent acting, except for a few hard-to-hear minutes at the start on opening night then Randy Hughson as Brabantio (Desdemona’s father) came on stage and I could hear everything. All the ways Williams explores race, gender, and consent.

All the visual innovation. For the first time at the Festival Theatre, the set design is comprised of digital projections.

Visit this link for a sense of how striking a set design it makes. Lines behind those Shakespeare lines.

You might want to skip Othello if…

You really do not like Shakespeare in modern dress. Respect for that. But this Othello is the perfect time to let it go.

Fun drinking game: Quaff every time you hear “honest” and “Iago.” You will be plastered before the action shifts to Cyprus where Othello beats the Turks.

Not so much fun drinking game: Quaff with disgust every time there is a racial slur. You will not go thirsty. But you will feel the world Othello faces.

A little background: Othello was likely written in 1604, after Hamlet and before King Lear. It was performed at court in Whitehall for King James I in November 1604, but may have been previously performed at the Globe …

It is based on a novella in Giraldi Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi in 1565, which was possibly read in a 1584 French translation. Shakespeare follows Cinthio’s plot quite closely, but in the original, Othello returns to Venice to be murdered by his wife’s family. Shakespeare also invented the character of Roderigo (a foolish suitor of Desdemona, used and eventually dispatched by Iago.) However, the moral of Cinthio’s cautionary tale about the sad end that awaits young women who disobey their parents is completely transformed in Shakespeare’s play.

Gord Hume in the house: Fans of London City Hall theatre — where Gord Hume was once a member of board of control — can hear him as part of the fest’s opening week Forum Event: Cultural Spaces and Communities. The 2019 Forum series opens on Friday, May 31, 11 a.m. in the Festival Lobby. It is the first in a series of panels focused on cultural spaces and features Hume and Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson.

Visit stratfordfestival.ca for details on events, plays, and tickets. 

Feature Photo of Michael Blake as Othello and Amelia Sargisson as Desdemona in Othello, Photography by David Hou 

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