5 April 2004 | dr_foreman
mixed results from tinkering with the Bard
Modernizing Shakespeare is a tough business. People who hate the Bard's archaic language and subject matter are unlikely to be lured into watching one of his plays, even if the dialog has been brought up-to-date. And Shakespeare purists usually resent seeing his beautiful poetry translated into contemporary blather. I belong to the latter camp, so sadly, I was annoyed that this version of "Othello" not only modernizes the setting, but also the language, of Shakespeare's classic play. My (perhaps elitist) attitude is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it...
That said, there is much to recommend here. Staging the drama during Rodney King-like race riots was an inspired idea. It's also good to see Othello and Iago (here called Jago) interact as friends before Othello is promoted; we get proof of their friendship and mutual trust before things turn sour. Sadly, two nice touches do not a great adaptation make; the other changes are not so effective.
"Othello" may be particularly tough to modernize because the hero is so fatally flawed, and in ways which make modern viewers uncomfortable. He's suspicious, jealous, easily duped, and very possessive of his wife. The last of these qualities seems particularly reactionary today. Of course, there are still controlling and abusive men around - lots of them - but such behavior is becoming more and more unacceptable. Othello is, by today's standards, a sexist. And he's a sexist who's constantly tricked by a much cleverer man! So I have some problems admiring Othello; he's less of a tragic hero than an utter mess. Somehow, his flaws seem less overwhelming in Venice of the past than in London of today. I wish screen writer Andrew Davies had done something to make him less passive and ingenuous.
Despite these problems, Walker gives a forceful performance as Othello. His charisma carries the day when the script fails to give him anything interesting or proactive to do. Eccleston runs wild as Iago/Jago, really relishing his rants and asides; I enjoyed watching him. Hawes is slightly dull as Desdemona (you may find yourself wondering "what's all the fuss about?"), and I couldn't believe that Cassio is played by Jeff from "Coupling!" Normally, I like to see sitcom actors in serious roles, but I just couldn't stop associating him with his silly "Coupling" character, so ultimately his presence was distracting.
Geoffrey Sax's always-stylish direction held my interest, but was not quite up to his usual standard. Like the other aspects of the production, he came up just a little short this time. Despite the wealth of talent on display here, the end result is a so-so adaptation of a problematic masterpiece.