Wozzeck at the ENO; Othello at the National Theatre

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Wozzeck at th English National Opera: Sara Jakubiak as Marie,  Leigh Melrose as Wozzeck. Photo Alastair Muir.

Wozzeck at th English National Opera:
Sara Jakubiak as Marie, Leigh Melrose as Wozzeck. Photo Alastair Muir.

Wozzeck, Othello, London May 2013

Conductor – Edward Gardner
Assistant Conductor – Gergely Madaras
Director – Carrie Cracknell
Set Designer – Tom Scutt
Costume Designers – Oliver Townsend and Naomi Wilkinson
Lighting Designer – Jon Clark
Translator – Richard Stokes

Cast includes:

Wozzeck – Leigh Melrose
Marie – Sara Jakubiak
The Captain – Tom Randle
The Doctor – James Morris
The Drum-Major – Bryan Register
Andres – Adrian Dwyer
First & Second Workmen – Andrew Greenan & James Cleverton
An Idiot – Peter Van Hulle
Margaret – Clare Preslan

A recent visit to London offered interestingly comparable back-to-back performances: Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck at the English National Opera, London Coliseum, Saturday evening, May 25th; and the next afternoon Shakespeare’s Othello at the National Theatre. Both works center on a military man, mad from the start or driven mad as things progress, who comes to kill his lover (female) out of sexual jealousy, and then kills himself. Comparison of the two works (the Berg opera, of course, based on Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck) can lead one into interesting thoughts on the nature of tragedy, modern tragedy versus classical tragedy, the function of character and fate in such dramas, and so on. But remarkably, these two London productions were given the same setting: the military world of the recent Iraq and current Afghanistan wars—thereby making a particular and strong point about the nature of experiential and environmental pressures upon such characters as we see.

With the ENO Wozzeck, directed by Carrie Cracknell and designed by Tom Scutt, the audience was confronted by a large, three-storied set with various rooms that were highlighted one by one for the various scenes: a servicemen’s bar, seedy dwelling rooms, a doctor’s office, and so on. On the top floor was a latrine, where no action took place—but the effect was that everything else, below this, is down in the sewer. There were no exteriors—no field or lake or red moon, as in the original material. Claustrophobia and confinement were the point, as if everyone is trapped in the chambers of a giant beehive, and things just go round and round. It is confinement to a state of mind, the traumatized mental world of those who have been into and come back from our recent and current wars. We saw men in camouflage fatigues. Wozzeck’s Captain appeared bare to the waist, sporting current-style tattoos, and had become hardened and tough in the current street-wise manner. Wozzeck’s friend Andres had lost a leg and moved about in a wheelchair. Coffins with British flags were carried about for the returned war dead. Wozzeck’s nightmares and horrible visions fit all too well into this milieu of the damaged in face of current ongoing international violence. The opera was sung in English, which was natural to the setting as the original German would not be.

If there is tragedy here, it is one of situation—in the play, in the opera, and in this production with its particular focus. Wozzeck is who he is from beginning to end, and baritone Leigh Melrose conveyed wonderfully well the man’s constant brooding and distracted quality, and his sensitivity—even his outbursts and violence seem digressions from a deeper and abiding, and in a way quiet, disturbance. The physical environment, the social pressures—the abusive Captain and the Doctor who pays Wozzeck to experiment on him—are what they are beginning to end. Marie, who lives with Wozzeck and has a child with him out of wedlock, does give way to an affair with the Drum Major and precipitates Wozzeck’s murder of her and his suicide. But there is no issue of character-determines-fate. Marie’s alienation from Wozzeck is abiding, her temptation, passion, and remorse just bubbles rising from a deep and broad existential quagmire. Soprano Sara Jakubiak commanded the stage and put across the woman’s various moods with a strong voice and a deportment at once tragic/mythic and modern low-life. Indeed, the production was very well cast throughout, people looking their parts, singing well, and working like real actors—tenor Tom Randle as the Captain, beloved bass-baritone James Morris as the Doctor, tenor Bryan Register as the Drum Major, tenor Adrian Dwyer as Andres, and several more. The chorus was fine, and all the material with onstage musical players, crowds, dancing and such were well coordinated and high in energy.

Rilke wrote of the Büchner play, “Nothing but the fate of a common soldier who stabs his unfaithful mistress—but it expounds magnificently how all the greatness of existence is a frame even to the most insignificant life…Here, there, and everywhere, on all sides of his dumb soul he is unable to prevent the horizons from bursting open into the mighty, the tremendous, the infinite.” The Büchner stirs up metaphysical noises, but it is Alban Berg’s score and setting of the words that Rilke seems to foresee and to experience. The music renders this simple and sordid tale as if the suffering and madness of all of us, of the universe itself, were focused there. The music is thoroughly organized and formal—sets of variations, sonata form with development, a suite of dances, and so on—and at the same time wildly expressionistic, outer grotesquerie indicating inner turmoil and depth and also superhuman overtones. The ENO Orchestra, large on this occasion, under the company’s Music Director Edward Gardner played this difficult score with clarity, intensity, deep feeling, and a grand sound.

All the complexity and inventiveness of the score and indeed the whole drama seem calculated to prepare for and justify the great orchestral interlude after the deaths of Wozzeck and Marie, a throbbing, cathartic elegy that brings together and resolves everything that has gone before—all is transcended in music, which, Schopenhauer says, has the same status as the whole phenomenal world, both being expressions of the same underlying impulse, to testify to suffering. Berg called this climactic interlude his “appeal to humanity.” After it comes some bitter playful music, when Wozzeck and Marie’s illegitimate child comes out from the set, escaping it into a sort of outdoors, though a bleak Beckett-like realm, where his schoolmates torment him with remarks about his parents. The romantic and grand comes down to earth, where the infliction of mental pain passes from generation to generation.

Othello at the National Theatre: Olivia Vinall as Desdemona, Adrian Lester as Othello. Photo Johan Persson.

Othello at the National Theatre: Olivia Vinall as Desdemona, Adrian Lester as Othello. Photo Johan Persson.

by William Shakespeare
National Theatre, London
Nicholas Hynter, Director

Jonathan Bailey – Cassio
Rory Kinnear – Iago
Adrian Lester – Othello
Lyndsey Marshal – Emilia
Olivia Vinall – Desdemona
David Kirkbride

Sandy Batchelor
Adam Berry
David Carr
William Chubb
Robert Demeger
Jonathan Dryden Taylor
Gabriel Fleary
Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi
Scott Karim
Tom Radford
Tom Robertson
Nick Sampson
Chook Sibtain
Rebecca Tanwen
Joseph Wilkins.

Shakespeare’s Othello is a linear tragedy where things change, going into a downward spiral. It is perhaps a case of character determining destiny—this is debatable. But at any rate, things happen, there is development, more than the spelling out of a basic situation.

With the National Theatre production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, the company’s general director, and designed by Vicki Mortimer, we get, as with Wozzeck, soldiers in modern fatigues with backpacks—this time quite a few women among them; modern concrete fortifications; barracks-style low-ceilinged rooms—common room, bedroom, office, latrine (where Othello spies on Cassio talking to Iago); and in general a playing style suited to current military personnel relaxing and partying and getting into trouble. We do not face a beehive set where things go round and round. Rather, rooms and outdoor spaces move forward and withdraw, with surprises right up to the end. This is a world of change and disorientation.

The modern setting for Othello works not so much, as with Wozzeck, to underscore how the pressures of military life contribute to a general dehumanization. Rather, this setting helps Hytner and his cast develop a prosaic realism for the play. This old story of professional and personal envy, misunderstanding, maddening sexual jealousy, and domestic violence is happening now, among people all too familiar to us—this is what the production is saying. Every line, every word is made to work as plausibly as possible as the credible—prosaic—speech of contemporary people such as we see here. The cast carries this off, and convinces us with, each of them, a strong psychological presence. We believe them as people actually going through these horrible turns of events.

But there is a discrepancy. The approach allows very little of what the great Shakespeare critic G. Wilson Knight called “the Othello music.” In the text and relished to some extent in most productions, Othello himself, the great soldier, experienced in many wars and starting to age, exotic, black, speaks a grand, highly poetic, even self-indulgent language. He is different from the others in this respect, which is part of his problem. “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them,” he says magnificently near the start of the play, when he has eloped with the well born white girl Desdemona and confronts her angry father and his men in the street at night (“bright swords” because they are unused in fight like Othello’s own, and “bright” because he loves the beautiful gleam of metal and wants to invoke it). We enjoy his line and feel for him, but the others do not. Either this line was omitted from the production, or delivered in such a throw-away manner that I missed it. References to “the neighing steed,” “the plumèd troop,” “Jove’s dread clamors,” and so on came through, but sounded odd in the context of this production. There was much damping down and throwing away of Othello’s poetry. Adrian Lester, a fine actor, managed—to say the best for it—to keep the poetry murmuring as a sort of indicator of something strange brewing in the depths of this man, something that goes mostly unnoticed.

One felt privileged to see this cast, working so well together and so well coordinated with the spirit of the production. Lester is a large and handsome stage presence, with a beautiful clear voice with something of a trumpet sound at the edges, like Olivier. He was commandingly cool and competent in the early scenes, entering a modern corporate boardroom and soothing the Venetian powers that be over his scandalous elopement, while taking command of their new military crisis. In Cyprus, after becoming unhinged, he was forceful and scary with his wife, then, having killed her and realizing his mistake, more forceful than ever sensing his doom and seeming to harbor all knowledge, finally bringing poetry and prose realism together with his line, “Here is my journey’s end,” uttered grandly and soulfully. Rory Kinnear as Othello’s subordinate Iago, who plants jealousy in his mind, was unremitting with his “I hate the Moor” and his improvisatory genius for causing trouble. Kinnear, a large and physically strong Iago, balding, spoke quite rightly with a working class accent (without laying it on)—there is class envy in his hatred, as well as racism, disgruntlement at being passed over for promotion, and much else, none of which seems quite adequate to account for what he does. He is the common man whom a mysterious complex of bad feelings pushes into determined and violent action. Olivia Vinall’s Desdemona was a modern sexy girl, projecting very well the innocence of her—well, innocence, and the self-confidence of her class. Understudy Sandy Batchelor played Cassio very well, Othello’s good-looking and upper-class lieutenant, whom he is made jealous of—Batchelor was good at losing control of himself through drink, agonizing over his loss of his place, and pressing his suit to regain it, through Desdemona. He and Vinall made Cassio and Desdemona seem indeed a suitable couple, two attractive people of similar age and background who relate to each other easily.

Why does Othello become jealous? A.C. Bradley proposed that this noble and heroic nature is simply played upon by “diabolic intellect,” cast under a spell by a hateful Iago through extraordinary cleverness, if not actual demonic powers. F.R. Leavis would have none of this, insisting that Iago is the sort of low-life disrupter always present, his effectiveness depending on a propensity in the one he would harm. Othello is open to Iago, says Leavis, because of the great man’s self-absorption (he loves to refer to himself in the third person) coupled with a fatal un-self-knowingness (“one not easily jealous,” he says of himself), which prohibits him from actually relating to and knowing his wife as a person—she is an object for him (“that whiter skin of hers than snow,/And smooth as monumental alabaster…”); and an object can be imagined easily to change hands.

One can ponder the motive of Iago and the psychological vulnerability of Othello for ever, and neither will quite come clear, or answer to the sense one gets in a great performance, such as this one, of one man simply battering unstoppably at the other’s mind, and the loving husband and fine commander transforming into a self-hating weak reed (“Haply, for I am black…or, for I am declin’d/Into the vale of years…”) and then, toward his wife, sarcastic, shouting, brutal, murderous. What one experiences with the play, and decidedly in this performance, is the tragedy of change. Othello becomes, not really accountably, a destructive and self-destructive monster, letting out torrents of abusiveness he has held within, astonishing Desdemona and everybody about him, except Iago. The final scenes here were harrowing—the bedroom confrontation with Lester/Othello hurling charges and threatening death, Vinall/Desdemona fighting back, the protracted killing of her in stages, then the turning against himself. Most of us left the theater, after nearly three and a half hours, feeling devastated, having witnessed in focus all the horror of the downturn and dissolution that life can evolve into. As the final speaker comments, “the object poisons sight.”


About the author

Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

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