Othello is the most tragic of Shakespeare’s outsiders, because it almost seems as if he has overcome the barriers that alienate him from his cultural environment. He has had to create a persona that excels in every conceivable way – he has had to become a war hero of matchless courage, a leader radiating cool authority and perfect self-possession. But Othello knows that excelling the Venetians at their own game is not enough. He must exploit his own status as an outsider, putting in front his own life story to enchant and compel interest from the people around him, adopting a poetically charged language that self-consciously sets him apart on his own terms, allowing him to be in control of his own social distance. It’s a brilliant performance, but it comes at a cost. It depends for its success on his control of the situation. When he marries Desdemona, he puts everything on the line. Everything he has worked so hard to achieve is at stake if he reveals a soft spot and is betrayed. “My life upon her faith”, indeed. He knows all too well that Othello the cuckold has lost his occupation, dependent as it is on the image of invulnerability and self-possession. Admit this betrayal and he becomes again the outsider – the social barriers return and all is lost.
Ironically, he is defeated by a man who himself has limited prospects. Iago can’t get ahead, and though he may blame accident of birth or lack of means or even Othello, he realizes on some level that greatness is simply beyond him.
Tony Church on the Argo recording conspicuously lacks the charisma necessary to cast a spell on the Venetians and the audience by extension – for he does have his own style of enchantment. But without this aspect of Othello’s character, so important in the early scenes of the play, it is remarkable how much Church ultimately delivers. By emphasizing Othello’s unflappable authority, with the merest hint that it is very tightly wound indeed, he generates a tremendous amount of heat when that exterior shatters later in the play. Church is unexpectedly splendid in Act IV and V. His Iago, Cambridge Prof Donald Beves, delivers all the essential points in the ensign’s frustrated personality, but just can’t convince us of the intensity of his hatred, the force that must drive the first two acts.
So the recording has a very slow start, but comes alive with the rapid deterioration of Othello’s character. Irene Worth’s Emilia is especially superb, a soul in pain trying to put a brave face on. She completely steals the Willow Scene from Wendy Gifford’s Desdemona, whose restraint verges on monotony. Emilia is usually played with breezy worldliness, but Worth is the first I’ve heard who actually conveys that her marriage to Iago has been a nightmare. And Act V is brilliant, with all actors delivering beautifully, even Gifford, who finally displays Desdemona’s plight with her desperate, panicked exasperation. A pity – this is not a recording the casual listener is likely to stick with, but the conclusion is very rewarding.
And a note – this is the first of the Argo series to be recorded, in September 1957, a reminder of how young were most of the cast – Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, Lodovico and Brabantio all in their 20s.
Othello with Tony Church, Donald Beves, Wendy Gifford, Irene Worth, Gary Watson