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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 3. 1967.

Othello a token gesture

page 8

Othello a token gesture

The filming of a Shakespearean play is a task which has more than its share of pitfalls. The new Othello (With Laurence Olivier in the title role) and Henry V are examples of the reverent literal approach. These "interpretations" retain a theatrical flavour and are generally devoid of cinematic merit.

The method at the opposite extreme is to take the essentials of plot and character and place them in a different period and setting. The western, for example, is a particularly apt vehicle for expressing the ideas and themes of Elizabethan drama. Thus Broken Lance (King Lear), Jubal (Othello) and Kurosaw's western-styled Throne of Blood (Macbeth) are derived from Shakespeare. Othello and Macbeth by Orson Welles exemplify his view that one can "adapt a classic freely and vigorously for the cinema." Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar is more faithful to the original, maintaining a delicate balance between the text and the demands of cinema.

As a film, the National Theatre production of Othello can be dismissed as a token gesture. The occasional burst of editing, close-up, or camera movement, indicates that Stuart Burge has remembered his position behind the camera. These gratuitous nods to the medium are not of prime importance. Othello, in fact, cannot be criticised for being a virtual non-film (in the cinematic sense), since it could claim to be nothing more than a record on celluloid of a stage performance. One can still ask, however, whether or not the production itself is a success. One can also question whether the record on celluloid is a fail-representation of the play. I must admit I went to see Othello with some misgivings, but I did not expect to find Shakespeare's noble tragedy reduced to bloody farce.

The Moor in the woodpile and root cause of the trouble is Laurence Olivier. In his film performances he has impressed me more as an expert technician than as an actor capable of portraying a character in depth. Olivier has fine voice, delivering his lines superbly, but in the matter of outward appearance he is all composed mannerism and studied posture. The secret of apparent non-acting, so vital to any good film performance, seems to have eluded him. Presumably Olivier's style is eminently suited to the theatre, but in Othello we are treated to an abysmal display of over-acting and carpet-chewing.

Too overwhelming

Olivier's conception of the character lacks the nobility, or at least the dignity, that one normally expects of Othello, and what emerges is a kind of crudely-drawn Uncle Tom given to wilful fits of rage and self-pity (or whatever the sobbing, slobbering and gymnastics are meant to indicate). What is important, however, is not the validity of Olivier's interpretation but the fact that his technique is simply too overwhelming for the intimate eye of the camera. What may have been impressive on the stage turns out to be ludicrous on the screen, and it is unfortunate that Olivier's antics cast a bad light on the entire proceedings.

Frank Finlay as Iago succeeds admirably. His quiet playing and subtlety of gesture is in the style of a film performance, and he is consequently treated kindly by the camera. This contrast between Finlay and Olivier brings out the most vital point which could be made about this Othello. If one is making a film (in the cinematic sense, again) of a play then all the techniques of the cinema will be employed. The acting, for example, will of necessity be film acting. Observe how John Glelgud in Julius Caesar was out of place in the company of Brando, James Mason, Edmond O'Brien and Louis Calhern, all of whom acted as if they were in a film studio and not the Old Vic.

On the other hand, if one sets out with the aim of making a permanent record on film of a performance in the theatre, then the procedure should be entirely different. The camera should be put in the middle of the "audience" and left there. The trouble with this is that, lacking the live presence of the theatre, the film will probably be a bore. But there seems to be no way out of the problem; as soon as the camera starts roaming around amongst the players or moving in for close-ups, the oversized emoting and large-scale theatrics will be mercilessly revealed. The difficulty is that if the players compensate for the presence of the camera by underplaying their roles, then the film, in this one respect at least, will cease to be a valid record of the stage performance.

The sets and staging of the action did little to offset Olivier's performance. Paradoxically, the object-lesson in stage direction comes from the cinema. I refer to Eisenstein's Ivan The Terrible (part 2), a film which should be compulsory viewing for all those interested in the theatre. This is not to say that plays should be as choreographic as, say, a Busby Berkeley spectacular, but at least the movement of the actors should provide some interest. The sets in Othello are no better than most local theatre I have seen. Once again a lesson could be learnt from another medium. Recent productions at Bayreuth have shown how lighting and scenery can be used to startling effect. But I suppose the late Wleland Wagner was more interested than most theatre producers in psychoanalysing the drama and revealing the symbolic content.

My final point about Othello will doubtless be regarded as a minor criticism, but those who accept the fault it attacks sell themselves short. It may very well be beneath the dignity of knights and dames of the theatre to hold their breath for any length of time, but I personally find nothing more damaging to a rousing Shakespearean lament than a corpse which wheezes like a pair of rusty bellows. Both Desdemona and Othello exhibit this peculiar physiological reaction, a ridiculous state of affairs which could have been avoided by a little effort on the part of the actors and some judicious editing. Olivier has done this before, notably in Hamlet, but he is by no means the only culprit. There are few directors or actors who will take any trouble over this point, but a corpse which breathes is a phenomenon that requires an outrageous suspension of disbelief. I am continually surprised at the number of people who are willing to make this concession to such an absurdity.

"The Chase" reviewed

The Chase begins with some beautiful shots of two escaping convicts. Confidence in this splendid opening is justified by the rest of the film. This big, sprawling movie represents Arthur Penn's best work to date, being clearly superior to The Miracle Worker and the Left-handed Gun, and more successful than the off-beat, consciously "experimental" Mickey One. Aided by some fine colour photography by Joseph La Shelle and a team of first-rate actors. Penn has succeeded in drawing a dramatic, often violent, picture of a Southern town and the remarkably rude people who live in it.

The Marlon Brando part (Sheriff Calder) looks like a hangover from the days of High Noon and Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, a time when the lawman was hero, fighting against great odds for the benefit of an apathetic townspeople. In The Chase the citizens are not apathetic, they are actively hostile to Calder's attempt to recapture an escaped prisoner with a minimum of violence. This situation gives Penn plenty of scope for some nasty comments about sadism in human nature, Southern hostility towards Negroes, and so on, together with a wry glimpse at small-town sexual morality. These observations of The Human Condition do not intrude but are well integrated in the mainstream of the film.

Transposed into a modern setting and played by Brando with a laconic and sometimes fiery assurance, the character of the sheriff acquires a genuine, although complex, heroic stature. Most of the supporting cast perform will, particularly E. G. Marshall and Robert Redford. James Fox does not make a very convincing American, but this is a minor flaw. It will be interesting to see it Penn approaches the calibre of his contemporaries. Kubrick and Frankenheimer, and The Chase provides evidence that he is well on the way. This excellent, dramatically satisfying film more than compensates for a disappointingOthello.

Rex Benson.