Is Iago’s love as deep as his resentment? What if Iago is not methodically calculating and he is actually confused, struggling with his own desires, making it up as he goes along? I am not what I am – what does that mean? These are some of the questions Philip Seymour Hoffman asks as he approaches Iago in the (sold out) Public Theater production of Othello opening today in New York (see video below). I am reading Othello anew, examining the angles, enjoying the language, watching the videos of Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh and Irène Jacobs from the 1995 production. How much in the text is not what it seems?
The seed for this production of Othello was planted a number of years ago over a Princeton lunch table, when novelist Toni Morrison issued Peter Sellars a challenge. To answer this challenge, Sellars has launched a five-year project, of which this production is the first installment. Parallel to it will be the creation of a new play by Toni Morrison entitled Desdemona, which will engage, debate, and complement Shakespeare’s play.
In Morrison’s words, “The only reason Desdemona loves Othello, or so she says, is the stories he told her. She listened to these stories of his, of his travels and his adventures. Where are those stories? We need to hear those stories that are not in the play.”
The artists will return to Othello and Desdemona over several years, developing them in tandem with a view toward ultimately filming each play on location. This will create a body of work that can go into high schools across America, offering penetrating, poetic and insightful language and up-to-date images that address the challenges that lie ahead for a new generation.
Perhaps the 21st-century can respond to Shakespeare’s prescient and painful allegory with new structures and new relationships that reach toward shared understandings of simultaneous global realities, and that might reconcile the cries for justice across the sexes, across class, among nations and across cultures.
See the Public Theater YouTube channel