Isaac Butler in Parabasis:
Now that I've seen it, I’d like to briefly talk about a couple of aspects of Sam Gold’s recent, much-lauded production of Othello at New York Theatre Workshop and how it will hopefully come to influence how we produce Shakespeare. No, I’m not talking about the casting of movie stars, although both Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo’s performances were excellent. I’m talking instead about the way the production through sheer excellence makes a great case against both over conceptualization and the recent controversial efforts to “translate” Shakespeare plays to make them more accessible to contemporary audiences.
If you’ve seen this Othello, you might balk at my saying that it resists over conceptualization. This Othello was very directed, and the design was extremely present. The production transformed New York Theatre Workshop into a wood-lined barracks, with only a few light sources (none of them traditional theatrical light). When the audience entered, a soldier sat on stage playing Guitar Hero. The first scene took place almost entirely in the dark. The costumes looked deliberately unfinished. The cast sang Hotline Bling at one point. Two cast members besides Oyelowo were Black, shifting the focus away from Othello’s racial otherness and towards other themes.
Yet the production avoided literal conceptualizing. This play did not literally take place during the Iraq war, but it gestured at it. It did not literally take place in a barracks, but used elements of a barracks as scenery. Rather than taking us to a specific place or time, the design choices instead aimed to create the right environment for this interpretation of the text, an interpretation that was focused on war and its effects on masculinity.