A female Hamlet, a gay “Romeo and Julius,” a white Othello surrounded by black schemers: We’ve seen it all.
Now comes “Desdemona,” a new variation on Shakespeare’s “Othello” concocted by Nobel-prize winning novelist Toni Morrison, Rokia Traore, a singer-songwriter from Mali, and Peter Sellars, the director known for his eccentric flattop and obsessive updating of the classics.
It’s an international coproduction that was launched in Vienna, is now on view in Nanterre, a Paris suburb, and will soon come to Berkeley and New York. Next year, it will travel to Berlin and London.
Some have called “Desdemona” an oratorio. In fact, it’s a two-hour monologue with musical interludes.
The play, Sellars said at a news conference in Vienna, “takes Shakespeare into the 21st century,” which means it brings him into line with the laws of political correctness. For this to succeed, some facts had to be twisted.
Barbara, the maid who worked for Desdemona’s mother and is fleetingly remembered for her sad “Willow Song,” has become a major character and has been rechristened “Barbary,” which we are led to believe makes her African.
Shakespeare’s Barbara was surely no more African than Barbara Bush or Barbra Streisand. She does share the origin of her name (from “barbaros,” Greek for “foreign”) with the Barbary Coast, the ancient name for what we call the Maghreb.
Yet the inhabitants of that region, the Berbers, aren’t black either, as everybody knows who has seen Zinedine Zidane, the French soccer star, in action.
The second assumption on which the play rests is no less dubious.
Othello, we are told, didn’t believe Iago’s lies for a second. He killed Desdemona out of male bloodlust and because he had an affair with Emilia, Iago’s wife.
I would gladly go along with Morrison’s fantasies had she created a new, compelling drama. That, unfortunately, is not the case.
The moral of her story couldn’t be more simplistic.
“There will be a time when women prosper on their own terms,” Desdemona rhapsodizes, and Sellars added in an interview: “An interracial relationship no longer needs end in strangulation.”
You don’t say.
The text matches the naivete of the message. It’s full of platitudes and, at the same time, oddly stilted.
Lesson of Flesh
“Constraint was the theme of behavior,” Desdemona recalls her strict upbringing, “duty was its plot.” To Othello, whom she meets again in the realm of the dead, she says: “My appreciation for those years is deep and in no way diminished by my critique.”
At times, the text borders on kitsch: “Laughter is our teacher,” says Othello, and Desdemona replies: “And our flesh is its lesson.”
The very blonde Tina Benko, like everybody else barefoot and clad in white, speaks both parts: Desdemona’s with a broad Midwestern accent, Othello’s in a deeper, faintly exotic voice. She also speaks the lines of Emilia -- here, for unknown reasons, called Emelia.
It’s a tour de force.
Traore delivers Barbary’s songs in Bambara, her native language, accompanied by three female vocalists and two men plucking African string instruments. She has a lovely voice, and you easily understand why her tunes, a sweet mix of African folk songs and New Age music, are so popular.
Alas, neither of the two stars can save the production from its numbing triviality.
“Desdemona” is at the Theatre Nanterre-Amandiers through Oct. 21. It will be at the University of California at Berkeley from Oct. 26 to 29 and at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in New York on Nov. 2 and 3.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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