Wie lässt sich die Energie in Shakespeares Sprache auch noch im 21. Jahrhundert nachspüren? Ganz einfach: „Hand aufs Herz“ und den eigenen Herzschlag fühlen: dadum-dadum-dadum-dadum-dadum. Oder anders formuliert: Da schlägt ein jambischer Pentameter. Diese Erfahrung machten Schülerinnen und Schüler des Englischkurses von Frau Lievenbrück in einem von den UNIVERSITY PLAYERS der Universität Hamburg angebotenen Workshop zu deren „Othello“-Aufführung im Audimax. In der von Regisseur Jasper Koch und Produzentin Svenja Baumann geleiteten Einführung zu Shakespeares populärer Tragödie erlebten die Kursteilnehmenden, dass „The Bard of Avon“ selbst nach 400 Jahren durch seine Rhythmen und Themen berührt, überrascht und reichlich Spielraum für unterschiedlichste Interpretationen lässt.
Hier gibt es eine Kritik der Aufführung, geschrieben von Helena Koch (S4):
Fighting the green-eyed monster: To be direct and honest is not safe?
A review of the University Player´s Othello
Audimax, Hamburg. From the top of the impressive lecture hall with its staircases which recall an ancient amphitheatre, everything happening on the stage seems far, far away. Take a closer look at the furniture in front of the inky background and you can make out a white sofa surrounded by various desks which are decorated with indoor plants and several computers, stacks of paper and even a printer.
What play is being performed on this stage? It seems like something contemporary, not older than a decade or two. Such being the case, the true answer is a considerable surprise. The drama was actually written 400 years ago by no less than famous playwright William Shakespeare: Othello.
Who is performing the play? The University Players, mostly current or former students of Hamburg´s university who founded a drama group in 1980. Othello is their winter production of 2017. However, instead of conveying a historical atmosphere, they have transported it to a modern environment: Venice, the original setting, is gone and an office has taken its place. Even the central character himself does not look like we would have expected him to do - instead of a dark-skinned man, we watch a young, fair-haired and light-skinned woman walking along the stage. As you can see, the University Players have challenged all traditions. But which message are they aiming to get across by doing so?
“Othello is facing a mountain of problems when her boss sends her to Cyprus to defend the company’s branch office against a hostile takeover.“ This is the introductory sentence of the play´s description on the drama group's website and so you already know: It is definitely not going to be a traditional version of the world-famous classic. „Accompanied by her new girlfriend Desdemona and her subordinates Cassio and Iago, events escalate quickly. Iago is planning to not only rid himself of his freshly promoted rival Cassio and take his position. He’s also determined to destroy the fresh and unwelcome relationship between Othello and Desdemona. Soon, everyone is caught up in a web of jealousy and intrigue, teetering on the brink of disaster.“ Undoubtedly, the University Players keep their promise: Emotions are overflowing the stage, making it impossible not to feel the built-up tension.
The updated version accomplishes various purposes at the same time: On the one hand, it makes the whole story much more realistic and draws it closer to the lives of a modern audience. Just think about who you can identify with more easily - Soldiers living in the 16th century and defending their country against enemies, just as Shakespeare describes them? Or ordinary office workers, having parties and affairs whilst dealing with contemporary difficulties? By updating Othello´s setting, the University Players have taken a clever decision.
Nevertheless, if you now expect the actors to speak that modern language we are accustomed to, then you may be faintly disappointed. In contrast to the advanced set design which exactly creates the impression of an international enterprise´s office the words spoken on the stage could not sound older and more Shakespearian. The historic English as well as the poetic lines make sure you will not forget - despite all those technological devices - what kind of play you are attending: Othello. A classic. Written by the greatest dramatist of all times.
Needless to say, a story cannot just live by the picture it creates in our heads, just as a movie or a theatre play cannot subsist on its chosen setting. Far more important are the characters or, in this case, the actors. Almost all of them showed a powerful stage presence, but especially the principal actors did outstanding work, such as the protagonist Othello. Confident, self-aware, sweeping gestures - the picture Shakespeare created in our heads is absolutely kept up. The only thing that may be different from our expectations is Othello´s skin color and gender: The English playwright actually lets the characters speak about him as „the moor“, a man, darkskinned. The University Player´s Othello is the complete opposite of what various other adaptations of the play have suggested: A woman is walking along the stage, holding Desdemona´s hand. Her hair could not be lighter, just as her complexion could not be any fairer. But still, is Shakespeare´s intention realized? At first sight, maybe not, but yet, if you reflect on it for a while, you can see that both interpretations of Othello have the same effect: He is, at least compared to the other characters, strikingly different. Whether he stands out due to the colour of his skin or because of his gender, does not really matter - does it? Whether Othello is being called "the moor" (Shakespeare) or "the dyke" (University Players): Either way, he does not really fit in.
It may not be a surprising fact, that Othello is the strongest character in a work named after him, but counter-intuitively, Iago is personated similarly convincing. With his always slightlybowed head and folded hands, as if he is trying to avoid attracting attention, he seems almost innocent - at first. But when seeing his devious smile, you instantly realize, that in fact, he is thinking intensely. Planning. „Honest Iago“ he is being called by almost everyone else - people trust him, since they are not aware, that he is destined to fill the antagonist´s role. Surprisingly, he is also the actor mostly seen during the play, even more often than the protagonist whom the play is named after. Iago´s manipulative voice and cunning smile seem to be everywhere. Therefore, the viewer can follow his plans very easily - it is not Othello´s, but Iago´s voice which seems to tell the story ...
The University Players have decided to modernize both setting and time. Change Othello´s outer appearance. Turn the antagonist into the main character ... Obviously, they have challenged all traditions. Yet again, which purpose does that serve?
You could sum that up by concluding that the play points out contemporary issues of our society. Its major conflict is, according to director Jasper Koch, not so much about the prejudices resulting from Othello´s skin colour, as one may assume, but rather about what could happen to a person that does not conform to common norms and principles - just as "the moor" in Shakespeare's script or "the dyke" in the University Player's version. Therefore, the main character is not Othello whom the play is named after and not Iago, though he might speak the most number of words. Instead, our protagonist is Shakespeare´s “green-eyed monster“, also known as jealousy or envy. Othello is the green-eyed monster´s victim, Iago the one using it for his very own purpose. He is the one manipulating his environment, whilst persuing only one goal: to damage Othello and ameliorate his own life. But what enables him to do that?
As an answer, Koch claims that “mechanisms of hate“ can easily be found in our society. Everything differing from our expectations, even in the slightest way, we consider as potentially dangerous. As Iago says: “To be direct and honest is not safe“. The antagonist himself is playing with that homophobia caused by our angst-ridden minds. His manipulations contribute to arousing the hatred which is emerging from fear. The fear of somebody being strikingly different.
The classic play's message is, as Koch argues, not only universal, but highly relevant to our current situation. By showing us how easy it is to stir up and nourish hate and how much a person can suffer due to his or her otherness, it sheds light on contemporary issues e.g. minority rights.
It is truly amazing, how Shakespeare could create a play 400 years ago with such a universal and still prevailing conflict as its theme. Nonetheless, the University Players´ interpretation adapted from the world-famous tragedy is similarly amazing and can be highly recommended, since it imparts the the playwright´s intentions really well. What could visualize the everlasting problem of being different better than a play that challenges all traditions itself? Through their modern interpretation of Shakespeare´s classic the University Players are holding a mirror up to the audience, making them receive an impression of the bad side of human behavior and reminding us that each should keep fighting against that disgusting, but powerful emotion which can control our actions: The devious green-eyed monster.
Fotos: Berthild Lievenbrück