I saw SRT’s production of Othello tonight, as part of Shakespeare in the park. It was good; better that I had expected, considering that last year I had been rather disappointed by the production of my favorite play, Twelfth Night.
The last live production of Othello that I saw was directed by the controversial Peter Sellars, and starred Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago. It had a simple but very technologically advanced set design, a stellar cast, and a rapt audience. My only complaint about that production was I felt Sellars hadn’t cut enough lines. It was long; in fact he had hardly cut anything.
Tonight’s production was more modern in terms of the script (read: lots of cut lines) but had a more traditional Iago. Guthrie’s Iago is the stock “bad guy” villain, conniving and motivated by selfish external accolades and pride. His asides to the audience are statements, not musings. He has little internal conflict about betraying Othello. He is, to the audience, overtly evil.
Sellars’ Iago was different. Hoffman as Iago was subtle. He mulled things over. His plan seemed to come together over multiple conversations and drinks, rather than hatched in one instant and executed the next. Sellars’ Iago was, even to the audience, subversively evil. There were times when we were not sure if he realized how evil he was being, as opposed to Guthrie’s Iago who may have well just loudly shouted, “I AM EVIL!” at tht top of his lungs — it was that obvious. Whereas Sellars’ Iago was just a man… A man who thought and talked a lot and a good portion of that time he said things that you might construe as evil. But he never really came out and said it. Nor did his body language, or his tone. It wasn’t until you were well into Act 3 when you realized, “Oh wow, this man might be deliberately evil.” Up until that point, Iago was almost accidentally evil — even things like planting Desdemona’s handkerchief were mere ideas for an experiment to him rather than pre-meditated tasks set out to destroy a man. He felt like a human that had just, over time, gone wrong.
Sometimes I wonder this about the people — and organizations — that I deal with who do seem evil on some level. I had to deal with one such situation today, which was fresh in my mind as I thought about the two different Iagos. Do they — these people and organizations — plan to be evil? Do they sit and sort out events and plots? Or are they haphazardly and accidentally evil? Did they become evil because of jealousy and pride? Did it happen over time, this erosion of values? Or is it so above-ground that they are clear and upfront about their intent to exploit others?
And the most important question: which is worse? The outright and obvious evil? Or the hidden and accidental evil?
Or does it matter?