tue 23/07/2024

Desdemona, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Desdemona, Barbican Hall

Desdemona, Barbican Hall

Desdemona gets her own back in richly re-imagined African Othello

Rokia Traore (left, with guitar) and Tina Benko (seated) reclaim OthelloBarbican Hall © Mark Allan

Peter Sellars has a talent for controversy, from his early days when he was the director who brought you Così fan tutte set in a diner on Cape Cod, Don Giovanni as a cocaine-snorting, Big Mac-eating slum thug, and Figaro getting married in Trump Tower.

At his best, in John Adams's Nixon in China, Saariaho’s L’amour du loin, or his Teodora at Glyndebourne, the results have been some of the freshest and most inspiring stagings of new music seen in recent times. Anyone who has met him knows he is a brilliant polymath, extremely charming and charismatic, even if many hate his haircut (see picture, below).

His critics have a point that given half a chance he will shoehorn his liberal politics into a piece, however anachronistically. Mozart, according to Sellars' readings of his operas, was a political revolutionary (no, he wasn’t, say most Mozart scholars). Osvaldo Golijov was bemused to find American GIs from the Iraq war jammed into his Lorca opera Ainadamar.

In this production, we get a new take on Othello, inspired by the thinnest of pretexts. In the original play there is one mention of Desdemona’s nurse Barbary, which was the name for North Africa in Shakespeare’s time, which meant she may have been African. From that we can surmise that Desdemona was taught African songs and stories as a child, one reason she was drawn to Othello, the Moor, when they met.

This ingenious idea has resulted in a two-hour monologue by Desdemona, written by Toni Morrison, with musical interludes. The good stuff first: Tina Benko, as blonde as you can get, is riveting as Desdemona, switching voices with aplomb to being Othello and other characters, such as their mothers The Malian singer Rokia Traoré as the nurse has a wonderful, unforced voice, and much of the music - written by her and accompanied by two willowy backing singers and harp-like kora and n’goni (no drums at all) - is mesmerising. Some of Toni Morrison’s language is superbly poetic - she's admirable in her reckless unconcern that she will be compared to the Bard and come off the loser. The lighting was effective and I’ve never heard the sound as good for such a concert (were those special microphones?).

Desdemona is dead, and inhabits a ghostly stage, with glass scattered like an African graveyard and the performers are dressed in white for this afterworld. The sense of being outside of time may be Sellars' strongest achievement here. The action spins out from Desdemona singing "The Willow Song" as she faces death in the original play.  

We get to hear Othello's back story - that he was a child soldier who was a drug addict (reference to modern child soldiers in Africa) and that feminism and interracial marriage are good things. Not that these contemporary references are automatically bad to include, but the shift in gears from sonorous poetry to didacticism sometimes involves an uncomfortable grinding of gears.

Desdemona comes over a bit New Age Californian, so when she says she loves Othello despite the fact that he confessed he raped two old ladies while a child looked on, and enjoyed it, it’s hard to believe.

The reverb added to the voices made it feel like we were on an unmoored ship sailing off into the cosmos

I caught the end of his pre-match audience talk and Sellars was saying this piece is anti-Olympics – not faster, higher, stronger, but slower, more interior, more feminine. The problem with the music, despite some wonderful passages, is the almost complete lack of any dynamics. One longed for some strings, or the odd flourish of percussion, or some virtuoso kora playing.  

There are examples of effective long-form minimal trance music from Mali like Ballake Sissoko and Toumani Diabaté’s New Ancient Strings that do work as hypnotic, meditative music and I suspect Sellars heard these and thought, a-ha, this stuff was probably around in Shakespeare’s time and when the Othello story was originally set. Toumani is part of a tradition that stretches back 70 generations to the 13th century. Traoré, meanwhile, is on her albums more post-modern than pre-modern. She’s an artistic intellectual rather than a traditional singer directly plugged into this ancient tradition, and the musical straitjacket imposed here was constricting to the point of claustrophobia. That may have been the point, however.

One is glad that Sellars, Morrison and Traoré made the experiment, even if by their own impeccable standards this was flawed. There are tremendous passages of writing, of music and some sterling performances. More than anything, the overall timeless atmosphere will stay in the memory. It was thought-provoking, with many magical moments, not least at the end when the reverb added to the voices made it feel like we were on an unmoored ship sailing off into the cosmos.

Desdemona inhabits a ghostly stage, and the sense of being outside of time may be Sellars' strongest achievement


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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I saw and loved the play last Thursday. We can never know whether Shakespeare intended Barbary (which some gloss as an alternate spelling for Barbara, but was also a geographical label for North Africa to the Elizabethans) to be African; indeed the Willow song she sings (in Othello, Act IV ,scene 3, lines 26-33) is actually an old English ballad, not an African song. But allowing for this artistic licence brings us to a deeper truth. Madame Brabantio could plausibly have had a black maid in Venice. There were black maids in other Italian-set plays of the time, such as Zanche in John Webster’s White Devil (1611). But it would also have been possible in London: there are records of some 200 Africans living in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime. For my review see: http://www.periscopepost.com/2012/07/toni-morrison-gives-new-voice-to-de...

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