STRATFORD, ON—The play bears Othello’s (Michael Blake) name, but the tragedy really belongs to Iago (Gordon S. Miller), who has seven soliloquies to Othello’s two. This nihilistic, black hole of a character falls on the far end of Shakespeare’s conception of evil, a natural endpoint after Aaron the Moor and Richard III. No production can succeed without a riveting Iago, whose only source of pleasure—indeed, whose only motivation—seems to be the pleasure he takes in destruction.
This, unfortunately, is where the Stratford Festival’s current production of Othello fails. Miller has not committed to a strong reading of the character, and therefore his presence onstage lacks the necessary dynamism. Iago was originally played by Robert Armin, Shakespeare’s clown, and I tend to read the part as such: a kind of Looney Tunes villain who brings out the best ham in actors like Kenneth Branagh. The writing, of course, is rich enough to warrant another reading; the problem with Miller is that there is no reading. He speaks the lines, but there is little thought or depth to the performance.
A shame, since Blake’s Othello is unusually strong. Along with Coriolanus, this is the most difficult leading role in Shakespeare, as the humorless general can too easily fall into monotonous rage. For a modern audience, the spectacle of an angry Black man is particularly distasteful, and Blake is a revelation in his ability to find a range of emotion in Othello. In fact, he doesn’t reach his crescendo of anger until right before intermission, an effect that draws its power from his relative good-cheer earlier in the play.
Still, without a larger-than-life Iago, Blake never finds his proper onstage foil. It is a difficult play, no doubt, but still, I wish director Nigel Shawn Williams had asked for more from his crucial supporting actor.