Sadly, the evils of racism, the injustice of victim-blaming and the difficulty of seeing the world through others’ eyes are not uncommon to the human experience.
Case in point: William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, written in 1603, reflects themes that are just as relevant in 2018. Perhaps the only difference was the level at which they were a part of public discourse.
“When Shakespeare wrote this play, issues of racism and sexism weren’t discussed,” said Ian Coulter, a Theatre student at the South Carolina School of the Arts at Anderson University. “Obviously, we still have those problems today.”
Coulter plays the dastardly Iago, a trusted advisor to the title character, in the school’s production, titled Othello 2020. It gets underway with the first of five shows on Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 7:30 p.m., at Rainey Fine Arts Center’s Belk Theater, on Anderson University’s main campus.
(More on that title in a moment.)
If you haven’t read Othello since your junior year in high school, here it is in a nutshell:
Othello is a Venetian general who is married to Desdemona, the privileged daughter of a senator. As a Moor, Othello is in the racial minority in Venice, which subjects him to such prejudicial treatment as being accused of seducing his wife with witchcraft. After all, why would a member of the Venetian elite marry a “lowly” Moor?
(Love, of course, but try telling the Venetians that.)
Complicating matters is Roderigo, who’d wanted to marry Desdemona himself, and her father, Brabantio, who was pretty much onboard with that plan. Then you have the aforementioned Iago, who was usurped from his position of influence by Cassio, Othello’s most trusted lieutenant.
Got all of that? Don’t let all of the names and relationships trip you up. Focus on the themes, said James Hall, the AU student who plays Othello.
“The whole story is relevant for the times in which we are living,” he said. “Hopefully this play is an eye-opener.”
Which brings us to the name, Othello 2020. Yes, it’s set in the year 2020. But more deeply than that is its hidden theme. It’s about vision, said Robert Homer-Drummond, Associate Professor of Theatre for the South Carolina School of the Arts at Anderson University, who is directing the production.
“The interesting thing about the characters is that they are absolutely certain they see things clearly,” he said. “But their vision is skewed. They all think they have 20/20 vision, but they are all really blind.”
And that speaks again to how relevant this 400 year-old story is in our modern age. Racism, domestic violence, privilege – these are all difficult subjects to tackle, made even more so by our culture’s unwillingness to hold itself up to a mirror and examine ways in which we are all complicit.
“There’s a little bit of Iago in everyone,” Coulter said. “He is full of jealousy, pride and envy. Most people know what that’s like, but they just never let it get out of control. Everyone knows what it’s like to get passed over, to be wronged and feel rejected. Iago just holds onto it more than most of us. He has relatable motivations, if not relatable methods.”
Just as Coulter sees himself in Iago, warts and all, so does Hall see himself in Othello. He said he knows what it’s like to not get the benefit of the doubt just because of who he is. It’s a dynamic he taps into while playing the titular character.
“It can be hard, emotionally, getting into all of that anger and sadness,” Hall said. “You don’t want to let yourself get too far, because coming out of it is not so easy.”
It’s not easy for Megan Rosener, either, the AU student who plays the tragic role of Desdemona. Themes of feminism and victim-blaming speak to her experience as well.
“She’s done nothing wrong, but in her mind, everything is her fault,” Rosener said, reflecting the experience of many victims of domestic violence – yet another contemporary theme. “She starts to believe everything, even that which she knows isn’t true.”
“There are so many different themes, and we really wanted to explore all of them with this version of Othello,” she said. “It’s so relevant to what’s going on in the world today.”