What Makes Iago Tick?
The Gazette (Montreal), December
by Jamie Portman
Othello is one of William Shakespeare's
most powerful achievements, a spellbinding study of how jealousy
and paranoia bring about the downfall of a great leader.
Nevertheless, this is a play
with a tantalizing psychological mystery at its core. It has
to do with the character of Iago, the scheming ensign who turns
against Othello, his black general, and engineers his destruction
and ultimate death.
Critics and playgoers have argued
for centuries about the forces that fuel Iago. He's one of dramatic
literature's great villains and also one of its most perplexing.
Ultimately, we keep asking ourselves:
what makes Iago tick?
Kenneth Branagh, the most exciting
of the new breed of British Shakespearean actors, asked himself
the same question when he agreed to play Iago opposite Laurence
Fishburne's Othello in the new film version of this 392-year-old
Despite a long career of performing
Shakespeare on stage, this was Branagh's first stab at Iago,
a character so compelling in his monstrousness that he often
takes over the play. Like all actors, Branagh found Iago exhilarating
- "villains are always fun." But he also found him
"He represents evil for
its own sake," the 35-year-old actor said by phone from
Los Angeles. "He's a man who seems to lose his emotional
centre. He's someone who is without remorse, without regret.
I see a sort of serial-killer mentality as this sociopath emerges."
But the riddle still persists.
What has turned Iago into this monster?
Branagh hopes answers will emerge
in the film version opening next Friday in Montreal. But Branagh,
who has directed Shakespeare himself on stage (Hamlet, King Lear)
and in film (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing), stresses that
the movie represents the personal vision of actor-director Oliver
Parker's version is competing
with two classic predecessors - the film record of the historic
Laurence Olivier stage version in which Olivier played the Moor
and Frank Finlay played Iago, and the recently restored Orson
Welles treatment with Welles as Othello and Michael MacLiammoir
The new Othello marks the first
time a black actor (Fishburne) has played the title role on film.
In adapting the play, Parker
has pruned Shakespeare's original text drastically and has also
thrown in a sexually charged bedroom sequence between Othello
and Desdemona, played by Irene Jacob.
But the basic narrative line
remains. Iago is enraged when Othello bypasses him to promote
another officer, Cassio (Nathaniel Parker) to a higher rank.
He decides to take revenge: planting
the seeds of murderous jealousy in Othello, Iago forces him to
believe in Desdemona's infidelity and drives him to murder.
But is resentment over a promotion
sufficient to justify Iago's hateful behavior? Some interpret
him as being driven by "motiveless malignity." Others
suggest he's a victim of class and racial resentment: anxious
to rise above his low birth, he's infuriated at seeing his ambitions
frustrated by a leader who happens to black.
Some productions have ventured
into murkier waters. A 1938 version, directed by Tyrone Guthrie,
who later launched Canada's Stratford Festival, offered an Iago
(Laurence Olivier) whose rage stemmed from his homosexual attraction
to the Othello played by Ralph Richardson.
After studying the enigma of
Iago, Branagh says, he can live with the most basic premise:
Iago is suffering "clear hurt and rejection" at not
But Branagh also stresses this
situation unleashes internal demons.
"I think Iago feels a special
relationship has been destroyed. We have these two outsiders,
Othello and Iago, who have bonded together in their military
service on grounds that are both Christian and heathen.
"They have even killed people
together, bonding in the only way people in that situation can.
So I think Iago feels this rejection very keenly," he said.
Iago discovers that even the
tiniest hints are sufficient to start sending Othello over the
edge - and this, says Branagh, encourages pure evil to take over
"What takes over is a sort
of growing delight, a sort of quiet glee in his ability to manipulate.
There's now a moment-to-moment enjoyment of that manipulation
which turns demonic."
Branagh is guarded when asked
about the drastically cut text - which eliminates some of Iago's
most famous speeches - and describes himself as basically an
actor for hire in this film.
"It sometimes pains me to
think about what is out. But when I accepted the screenplay,
which was so strongly interpreted by Oliver Parker, I decided
I had to work with just that."
Besides, Branagh the director
will have his own opportunity to respect Shakespeare's text when
he starts filming yet another version of Hamlet in January.
He'll also play the title role
and promises he'll be filming Hamlet in its entirety for the
Some scholars believe Hamlet
in its full text can run well over four hours. Branagh counters
that his 31/2-hour version will offer "the fullest acceptable
text." But if he wants audiences to sit still that long,
he says he must "come up with appropriate cinematic language
that marries word and pictures."
Othello and Hamlet are only two
examples of the resurgence in Shakespearean film-making. Ian
McKellan's version of Richard III opens this winter, and director
Trevor Nunn - the man responsible for the stage version of Sunset
Boulevard - is about to start shooting Twelfth Night on the Cornish
New Treatment Still Legitimate
Also in the works are new film
versions of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Branagh thinks the commercial
success of his version of Much Ado About Nothing and Mel Gibson's
Hamlet helped kindle the renewed interest in Shakespeare.
"It's always a challenge
to see if what works so supremely well in the theatre can transfer
to the screen."
And he also hopes the films will
renew audiences' interest in seeing Shakespeare live in the theatre.
He believes the new Othello, even in its abbreviated form, is
still a legitimate treatment of a Shakespearean classic.
"It engages very, very directly
with the audience's emotions. It's very full-blooded and focuses
less on Venetian politics than the interiors of the characters.
"It goes to the wick of
the ulcer, as Shakespeare might say."
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