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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 17, No. 5. April 15, 1953

"Othello" and "As You Like it"

"Othello" and "As You Like it"

When An Event like the arrival of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company comet to the ends of the earth, dropping like manna from heaven, the first and, really, the only important thing is to express one's gratitude. The event of a lifetime should simply be accepted. Criticism seems almost out of place, and a purely receptive attitude is here far more worthwhile than pedantic attempts at alertness. On the other hand, a panegyric and display of one's own feelings will scarcely interest anyone else, so I offer merely a few observations and impressions of these performances.

But first a word or warning, By what standard of values can these observations be made? If one has no comparisons with the best of theatre overseas it is futile to set up as an absolute what one "expected" or hoped for Even a slender possibility of comparison, as with the Old Vic company of a few years ago, breaks down. The greatest contrast between the two companies is that this one is even and closely-knit, with neither the Old Vic's star-billing nor its consequent lack of teamwork nor its weak, supporting cast. Here, it can really be said, "the play's the thing."

And now, about those plays. My only qualification for writing about them at all is perhaps that I was lucky enough to see almost every Wellington performance of them. So my "absolute" standard is Just the best of which the presentations were capable, though here again the yardstick measuring that standard may have an unfortunate lean towards the literary rather than the theatrical.

The crux of any interpretation of "Othello" seems to be under what conditions is Othello's jealousy credible? Suggestions like Leavis", that Othello's fall was the inevitable consequence of his own self-dramatisation and self-deception, or again that the essential tragedy is that one who completely lacked self-discipline was triumphed over by one who possessed it supremely, contains elements of truth, but do no Justice to this complex, tragic situation. Its validity hinges on the character of Iago and the whole of Leo McKern's brilliant performance, its variety and subtleties can. I think, be summed up by saying that he fully achieved that credibility, both regarding lago's own evil nature and its effects on Othello.

Not only did his sharp contrast of the bluff, Jovial soldier, the rough diamond whose cynicism no one takes seriously, with the embodiment of evil of the later acts, show how easily all those who knew him and took him for "honest Iago" could have been deceived, but it also made him the more terrible later on. Terrible, but also so real that any critics' fiction of supreme evil and supreme intellect, to Shakespeare's conception. This "pure motiveless malignity," seems by comparison hopelessly inadequate Iago hunts for motives to Justify himself, letting the real motive, half unknown to him, show itself, as at those intense moments like "I am your own forever," or "Work on my medicine . . . ." manifesting that lust for power which makes Othello and the others playthings in his hands. Finally, he showed the excitement of the many different porta he had to assume at crises of his plot.

But though so much of the plot depends on Iago, it is still Othello, the romantic hero, first admired then pitied, perhaps the most poetic of all Shakespeare's characters, who la the central figure of the play Anthony Quayle's Othello, however, apart from some great momenta in the two scenes with Iago, was not as complete a success as the latter role. He also sought a contrast, between simplicity and nobility at first, and the torment and fury Othello undergoes in the course of the play. The simplicity, despite Mr. Quayle's magnificent voice and stage presence, tended towards monotony, especially in the speech "Her father loved me . . . where he tells how he won Desde-mona. If one contrasts it with Iago'a important speech in the first act "Put money in thy purse." Othello's seems somewhat unreal, whereas one can hear Iago's very thoughts ticking, and feel that every drop of meaning is being squeezed out.

I also feel that Othello's jealousy, to be convincing, should not show itself as soon as it did here, not, in fact, before the soliloquy following his first encounter with Iago. That at Iago's line "Look to your wife. Observe her well with Cassio" Othello should make as if to strike him, and then bury his face in his hands, seems quite out of place. This beginning of the Jealousy stands in fiat contradiction to Othello's description of himself at the end as "one not easily jealous, but being wrought, perplexed in the extreme, "which is generally felt to be at least to some extent genuine, and not mere self-deception. Othello's scenes with Deadezmona, until Dcsdcmona'6 death, though again they had some fine moments, were not really heart-rending, and the miraculous line "Put out the light and then put out the light" was mined by Othello's pointing, as he said It to the lamp and then to Desdemona.

After her death, Othello's most wonderful poetry ("Me thinks it should be now a huge eclipse of sun and moon"; "Here is my journey's end here is my butt, and very seamark of my utmost sail"; and, of course his death-speech) here came close to being rant; and my main impression of the last scene was the moving acting of Emilia, who also had made a brilliant contrast between her earlier, almost excessive restraint and her being transfigured at death.

Space does not permit me to say much of the other performances, though I must still say that the difficult part of Desdemona was played by Barbara Jefford almost to perfection. Despite her helplessness at the end, and her incapacity to resist throughout, which are essential to the play, she emerged as a person in her own right, and gave a real insight into the psychology of her character Among the others, I found Raymond Westwell outstanding as Roderlgo, especially in the balance he kept between the ridiculous and his love for Desdemona.

"As You Like It" was a far more obviously brilliant production than "Othello"—It had periods of sheer de light, like Monsieur Le Beau, the birds in the trees, Touchstone with the shepherd at the pond, or his miming with William. Sir Oliver Martext and the many touches of comedy in the scenes between Orlando and Rosalind. All these are things I shan't ever forget. Much of this rich comic invention is extraneous to the play, though it is perfectly in character. But if one also considers what has been cut in the play, does it not seem a little unbalanced as a whole? it assumes that "As You Like It" is nothing more than an enchanting fairy-tale, that Shakespeare in writing it was as carelessly Indifferent as the title might seem to indicate, and it Ignores the more serious note running through the play and harmonising with it.

Barbara Jeffords Rosalind was technically very wonderful, but somewhat cold and statuesque. I also think it Important that on the fairytale level (on the representational one it is, of course, impossible) she should enter completely into her "boy's" part, at least that there should be two really distinct Rosalinds. Here where they often tended to merge, although this was charming and amusing., it did not quite get the essence of the part. I was perhaps more impressed, therefore, with Orlando, which is [unclear: n] an easy part, and which Keith Michell played with lots of [unclear: viraty] and vitality, and with Anthony Quayle's Jaques, a line study of the late Elizabethan fashionable type of the melancholy man (as one of the Company said, almost as If in our day Shakespeare would be setting; an existentialist on the stage). Audrey and Touchstone were both quite delightful—but the producer's treatment of Touchstone's part is the best Illustration of that lack of balance I mentioned. Though Touchstone is not as much, a philosopher as Feste in "Twelfth Night," he should have some more than half-serious moments even in the lines left him in this production, as in the passage "Your 'If' is your only peacemaker," or the line about Audrey "A poor humour of mine, sir, to take that that no man else will. But there is also a coarser, more sensual streak in him, (he does deserve the name of "the royalish clown"), as in a number of the other characters, which only the cut lines would bring out. Another significant omission is the appearance of Hymen at the end, the first of those manifestations of the "Deus ex machine" which in Shakespeare's last comedies carry with them an almost mystical feeling.

Peter Dronke.