July 30, 2021, by Peter Kirwan
Mugen-Noh Othello @ Shizuoka Performing Arts Centre
Some fifty years after the events of Othello, a wandering traveller called Waki arrives in Cyprus, which is now back under Turkish control. By beginning this Mugen-Noh rendition of the tragedy at a point when the deaths of Othello, Desdemona and the rest are almost out of living memory, director Miyagi Satoshi adds a further dimension to the play’s conflicting narratives. Here, Desdemona’s tragedy – and it is Desdemona‘s tragedy here, not Othello’s – continues after her death as her legacy continues to be contested.
Othello itself appears only in a central flashback section. Scenes of Iago getting Roderigo onside, of Othello’s case being heard by the Senate, and of Iago’s manipulation of Othello are performed consecutively and in fragments. Crucially, Desdemona herself is built up in the Senate scene, but the action cuts away just as her imminent entrance is announced. This choice places an enormous amount of emphasis on the significance of Desdemona’s own testimony while also showing how easily that testimony is ignored or silenced. This sequence is also the only section where all characters on stage speak for themselves, in their own voices. The men (exclusively) of the Shakespearean segments have control over their own mediation, even as Iago challenges the nature of truth as spoken by men.
In and of itself, this short section of the production offers a fascinating performance of Othello through the formal conventions of Mugen-Noh. During the Senate scene, the Duke is surrounded by a Chorus wearing masks featuring Japanese characters. The blocking of characters creates abstract, symbolic shapes that partially represent the dynamics of court but also stand for the power structures at play, juxtaposing stable authority figures with those appealing to or petitioning them. Iago’s fluid flexibility in this world speaks to his ability to work within these formal structures while also slowly working to subvert them, and the brief glimpse of the action of Othello makes clear the labour that has gone into subverting ideas of truth.
But this sequence is deliberately only brief, with far more time and attention given to the framing device that is, in fact, the play proper. Waki meets and interrogates a group of women carrying jars on the island, who turn out to be elderly Venetian women, left behind when the Venetian army abandoned the island and now scraping a living under Turkish rule. This new narrative of women being left behind and forgotten takes Desdemona’s story of being silenced and spoken about and expands it to a larger political narrative, scaling up to consider the impact on women of the wars waged by men. As the women tell Waki their story, they are joined by a fourth woman, the white-robed spirit of Desdemona, and the production plunges into a dream – which includes the flashback to Othello. Waki interrogates Desdemona’s spirit about whether she betrayed Othello, and if this is why the island was lost back to Turkey. Desdemona, in response, bemoans her fate and speaks at length and persuasively about her own betrayal and murder, and extrapolating from her story a warning for all women.
The narrative is simple; its telling is not. While Waki enjoys the privilege of speaking in his own voice, the other characters in this later timeline are predominantly voiced by a chorus of chanters who kneel at stage left, accompanied by a percussion band who determine the rhythms of the performance. The characters Waki meets perform in emblematic gesture, their voices chanted by the Chorus and detached from them in ways that allow the characters to step outside of conventional narrative form. The effect is to have Waki discombobulated by the stories he is being told, which emerge as complex syntheses of embodied and interactive movement, sung voices that switch between first- and third-person, and percussive rhythms.
Waki’s confusion is important, because he is asking the wrong questions. As a traveller to Cyprus, he is primarily interested in understanding the political history. Why did the island fall again into Turkish ownership? What was the story of the great military leaders that resulted in such catastrophic political change? But this is not the story that the women he meets are interested in telling. The three old women move slowly, holding their enormous jars on their head, and at first toy with Waki, playing on his fears of prostitutes and sending him scurrying back to his corner of the stage. But provoked by his disdain of them, the women force his questions about the histories of men into a story about their own history, the abuses they have been subjected to, the state of poverty they now endure. And it is this from this story that Desdemona emerges, speaking as the spirit of the dead woman.
It is after the flashbacks that Desdemona (played by Mikari) enters into her full magnificence. Taking centre-stage, while Waki sits in a corner, the resplendent Desdemona recounts her history in her own words. Waki presses her both on the rumours about her conduct and on his own assumptions about what a woman like her would have done to a man like Othello, but Desdemona responds in full dignity, patiently recounting her truth. The return here to the separation of bodies and voices allows Mikari to create some extraordinary physical images while the Chorus chants both her dialogue to Waki and representations of her inner thoughts. The climactic set of movements see her reaching into a jar and then pulling her arm back out to reveal it encased in a thick gauntlet representing Othello’s arm and hand, with which she proceeds to slowly throttle herself. This sequence is what appears to win Waki fully over to her side, and it’s notable here that Desdemona not only gets to tell her own story, but to reclaim a measure of agency over her own murder, replaying it with full control over the arm and, in doing so, reducing Othello himself to a disembodied act of violence.
The removal of Othello’s agency from this story creates other kinds of imbalance, of course, and the repetition of racialised insults in the dialogue (at least as they appear in translation) might act as a note of caution to remember that, in Desdemona telling her own version of the story, others’ stories are similarly being effaced. But in insisting to Waki not just that he listen, but that he start asking different questions of the people he encounters, Miyagi offers a reorientation of history around those who are forgotten – the victims of both personal and political encounters. It’s a production that insists on foregrounding those who bear the consequences of others’ histories, and gives the victims a space to reinscribe themselves into that history.
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