'Othello' and the Sense of an Ending


  • E.A.M. Colman


"But the Othello of Shakespeare cannot be acted." I misquote Charles Lamb, substituting Othello where he said Lear, to express a doubt concerning the artistry of this indisputably fine tragedy. It is a doubt that was enlarged rather than reduced by the 1978 Australian tour of the Chichester Festival Theatre Company. With a wealth of talent at work - Peter Dews directing, Keith Michell playing Othello, Roy Dotrice playing Iago, and in some performances the gifted young Jessica Turner as an incomparably moving Desdemona - this company's presentation of the play nevertheless left many of its viewers obscurely unsatisfied. Something had failed to connect. Part of the trouble stemmed from Dotrice's extrovert and ultimately nonsensical Iago: Peter Dews had allowed him to signal to audiences that a suppressed passion for Desdemona lay at the heart of Iago's vicious machinations, while most of the Iago performance (perhaps broadening as the tour went on) could only be described as cheerful. But aside from and running beyond this easily-locatable misjudgement, there was a feeling that even Keith Michell's much better controlled performance had missed its mark in the second half of the play - not through any perversity of interpretation, and certainly not through any shortcomings in the technique of this great actor. The fault, I wish to suggest, was Shakespeare's. The dramatic logic of Othello falters in the last act, and falters in such a way that the better the actor playing the Moor the deeper the emotional confusion created in him and thence in his audience.