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Playreading Report: Othello, Edinburgh 8th Nov 2015

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We ran a playreading of Othello last Sunday (8th Nov) using our MFFE V5 edition. Our play-readings are getting more popular – we had fourteen people turn up for Othello, (and sixteen planned for Romeo and Juliet in December) and it’s really too many. It depends a bit on the play, but usually it’s best to have around 8 – 10 readers. In most plays there are 8 – 10 ‘meaty’ parts, and it works well if everyone has at least one bit of meat, as well as a few minor roles as titbits to go with the main course. With 14 readers,  the smaller parts had around 50 – 80 lines compared with Iago at 1,000+ and Othello at 800+.

We’re working on changing the play-readings so we have roughly the right number of readers, and everyone gets a fair crack of the whip.

So how did the play-reading go? Well not so well as usual. I am not sure why but I think Othello is a bit more difficult to interpret than many of the plays. There’s two or three things that stand out:

  • There’s a significant change of scene in the play: Act One is in sophisticated Venice, including the Duke’s court; Acts Two, Three and part of Four are in an army camp in Cyprus, and then Venice re-intrudes in Act Four and Five, with the arrival of Lodovico from the Duke. If you’re reading the play, this change of scene may barely be noticed and yet it’s very significant. The sophisticated ambiance of Venice changes for the very masculine atmosphere of an army camp. Even before jealousy arises, Othello’s behaviour changes from the courtier at the Duke’s court, to the general in charge of a victorious army (see the Herald’s speech in A2S2).

  • Desdemona’s character is complex and difficult for modern readers. Now of course, Desdemona isn’t a real person, but the actor who plays her has to find a way to portray her, which convinces the audience.

    Her first scene is in A1S3, and we think it instructive to look at a character’s speeches in the first scene in which they appear for clues to their character, so here’s Desdemona’s speeches in A1S3 in Parts and Cues format:


    The first speech is clearly addressed to her father, though we shouldn’t forget that the scene is in The Duke’s council chamber, and as well as her father, she is surrounded by The Duke, at least a couple of senators,  and her new husband. In the context of the time, this is an imposing audience for a woman, until now, ‘sheltered’ at home.

    Given that context, she is speaking in a very assured manner, perhaps speaking to persuade, rather than from the heart. Is it just me, or does this speech also suggest that she thinks she has the moral high ground?

    Her second speech adds another dimension. Is it disingenuous of Desdemona to ask the Duke to help her ‘in my simpleness’?

    And her third speech (on the next page of this extract – click on the arrow, 2nd on the left on the menu bar) shows her character further. She is attracted to ‘The Other’. She shows a generosity of spirit towards Othello that she will later show to Cassio. She is sure she is in the right, and she is clever enough, and strong-willed enough to be persuasive in the ‘court’. But perhaps she is not aware of the psychological reality of the others – particularly her father, and later Othello.

    So later, in Cyprus, she is perhaps out-of-her-depth in the very masculine world of the army camp which her husband is responsible for, and increases her husband’s jealousy by pushing too hard for Cassio.

    She herself in A4S3 seems innocent of how  men and women can behave:
                                            O these Men, these men!
    Dost thou in conscience think – tell me Emilia –
    That there be women do abuse their husbands
    In such gross kind?”

    Of course, none of this in any way excuses Othello’s jealousy, but perhaps does contribute  to the inevitability of the impending tragedy. However, it is very difficult to spot this in a play-reading.

    I am very conscious that I may be laying myself open to charges of being an unreconstructed male. I would like to let you all know that I explored Desdemona’s speeches in A1S3 with a female friend who has directed a production of Othello, and our views are similar, and we also must not forget that we’re talking of a female character envisaged in the C17.

As part of our preparation for the play-reading my partner and I had read the play, and then watched the BBC ’80s version with Anthony Hopkins as Othello; Bob Hoskins as Iago; and Penelope Wilton as Desdemona. We were both very impressed with the production (see our 5-* review at: https://players-shakespeare.com/review-othello-bbc-shakespeare-collection/), and our view of the play changed considerably between our reading, and watching the production. This helped to strengthen my view that it’s not a particularly easy play to get from a reading, but needs the clues given by a sensitive production.

Perhaps the difficulties of the play were added to because, (for the third time) we were using our Cloud Reader. In the past, we’ve used epub versions of the plays in our MFFE format, but now the Cloud Reader is stable enough for it to be used for our internal play-readings. This means that, instead of using an epub reader such as iBooks or Calibre to read the plays, most of the readers (I think 12 of the 14) were using web browsers to read the script.

This is the third play-reading we’ve run using the Cloud Reader, and nearly everyone thinks it is an improvement over an epub reader (particularly because one can see the text with one’s parts highlit in different colours, or in ‘Parts and Cues’).   Although we’re using it internally, there are still two or three minor changes to be implemented before we’re ready to release it to the world. Although the Cloud Reader isn’t launched yet, it seems to be slipping slowly down the slipway.

Our next play-reading in December will be of Romeo and Juliet so there should be a play-reading report up before Christmas, and hopefully, the release of our MFFE V5 Cloud Reader. Watch this space.

Looking a little further ahead, 2016 is the 400 anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. We hope to mark this with two events. In January we hope to run an invited prepared reading of Twelfth Night and then on April 23rd, an invited prepared reading of Love’s Labour’s Lost,  both with our MFFEV5 versions of those plays. I hope they’ll both be available for you to use as well, if the idea appeals.

The Director,

See more about Parts and Cues on our Playreading Page.

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