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Theater review: Daniel Craig battles David Oyelowo in a modern-war Othello

Written by
David Cote

What’s the greatest live Othello you’ve ever seen? Not easy, is it? Audiences and scholars have long admired Shakespeare’s 1603 tragedy about a proud Moorish general destroyed by jealousy over his white, Venetian wife—a paranoid delusion wickedly orchestrated by his sadistic ensign. But finding a production that does justice to this ugly, relentless masterpiece is rare. For centuries, the title role was played by Caucasian actors in blackface (as late as Laurence Olivier in 1964). More recent attempts carry the historical baggage of American civil rights and postcolonial guilt.

What distinguishes Sam Gold’s incisive, brutalist staging at New York Theatre Workshop is a right-this-moment military frame and two ferocious performances by Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo. As Iago and Othello, respectively, the British film stars engage in a symbolic (and literal) wrestling match about race, class and sexuality—at the same time transcending it.

Gold places the action in a barrack occupied by various soldiers (Andrew Lieberman's plywood-box set meshes perfectly with Jane Cox's antiseptic lighting, David Zinn's stylish fatigues and the nerve-jabbing sound design by Bray Poor). Grimy mattresses and personal effects litter the space, and undershirt-wearing grunts pass the hours between fights by texting or strumming a guitar. The modern, implicitly dangerous setting evokes toxic male camaraderie, the chain of command and the precarious place of women in this wartime zone—all rich access points for the text.

You also can’t help musing that Iago’s sociopathy and Othello’s quickness to hate Desdemona (Rachel Brosnahan) might be a matter of PTSD as much as misogyny and internalized racism. But luckily, Gold knows when to increase the volume on his contemporary touches and when simply to trust the words. This isn’t a radical re-interpretation of Othello so much as a fresh coat of paint and a strong, clear reading, never forgetting our present moment.

The acting throughout is vivid, muscular and great on the ear. Craig and Oyelowo are superb together, and they give the language heft and fire. The American cast members are no slouches either: Matthew Maher may be the funniest, sweetest Rodrigo ever and Marsha Stephanie Blake's Emilia is coolly dry—until she becomes drenched with tears and blood. Craig is terrifying: dead shark’s eyes blazing from under a crew cut, biting into Iago's lines as if were tearing raw steaks. Oyelowo is the most physically imposing, emotionally stricken Othello in memory. He gives a legitimately awesome vocal performance, from the character's baroque arias of cuckoldry and revenge to the shrieking cries of a soul in hell. To answer my own question: The greatest Othello is here.

New York Theatre Workshop (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Sam Gold. With Daniel Craig, David Oyelowo, Rachel Brosnahan, Matthew Maher, Finn Wittrock, Marsha Stephanie Blake. Running time: 3hrs 10mins. One intermission. Through Jan 18. Click here for full ticket and venue information. 

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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