by Braxton Crewell

About a month before rehearsals began for Othello, Braxton Crewell posed three questions to the production’s three lead actors — Jude Sandy, Stephen Thorne, and Rebecca Gibel. Their answers help reveal how deeply actors look into the hearts of their characters in order to give the moving performances we count on at Trinity Rep. We hope you find their responses enlightening, and we hope you enjoy the show!

Braxton Crewell: What is your first memory of reading, watching, or performing in Othello?

Rebecca Gibel: I first saw Othello at the Royal Shakespeare Company during a trip to London when I was 19. It was the first time I’d really seen Shakespeare performed live. The man who played Iago was an actor named Richard McCabe. I still remember his name! That’s how struck I was by his performance. His Iago made me understand why Othello and everyone trusted him. He was kind and funny and self-deprecating and unassuming, and wholly unexpected based on my reading of the play. But that performance made the story believable to me.

Jude Sandy: Othello was my first Shakespeare encounter at age 14. We were made to read it in fourth-form Catholic school English class in Trinidad and Tobago, where I was born and raised. Our teacher demonstrated little appreciation for the text as live theater; therefore Othello and the rest of Shakespeare existed mostly as a heavy fog I had to fumble through — a real missed opportunity! I didn’t return to the play in any serious way until grad school, working on the role in scene study class led by Brian McEleney [the head of the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA Acting program], and finally found a love for Shakespeare’s poetry and humanism. I didn’t genuinely begin to understand the immensity of this play’s achievement though, until working on it in full, again under Brian’s direction at Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble last summer.

Stephen Thorne: When I first read the play I was astonished at how different it was from the other “great” Shakespeare plays — particularly with regards to the language. I found it nasty, sexual, brutal, deeply sad, and surprisingly funny.

Braxton: What in your character are you excited or interested in exploring?

Jude: I’m an immigrant, who grew up in a military household, a culture distinct from civilian society. Othello is a foreigner who has thrived in Venetian society by embracing codes of warrior conduct. He is nevertheless an outsider, a social aberration who is reminded at every turn of his otherness, with almost no one he can truly trust to guide him through Venetian ways of life beyond the martial order of the barracks. In playing Othello, I’m interested in the price that other-ed persons of all kinds pay for success in the face of ostracism, how precarious that well-being can be, how easily it can fall apart. I’m moved by how this hero and military commander so readily falls victim to a subordinate’s deception, is manipulated to believe that his wife is untrustworthy, how the culture of military violence he has adopted leaves him with no choice but to murder the woman he loves and destroy his own life.

Rebecca: I’m interested in Desdemona’s independence and strength. She goes against societal rules and the will of her father to marry a man she loves and believes in. That act of rebellion is often glossed over, and I think it is central to her story.

Stephen: I am fascinated — and repelled — by how much Iago has to work, to keep the intensity of his hate burning as it does throughout the play. He unleashes a profound amount of evil, but only after a number of failures. And he modifies his reasoning as he goes along — adapting to the situations that present themselves. This version of active or cultivated hate, if you will, gives him human proportion and makes him less of a one-note figure of malevolence. I find that interesting and difficult to think about in our current climate — when there is such a rise in uncensored expressions of hatred.

Braxton: What is a theme that lives at the core of this show for you, and why?

Rebecca: I’m curious about the intersection of a racist society with a society that prizes and elevates extreme, aggressive, dominant masculinity. Ha! Sound familiar? At first, I was thinking about how challenging it will be to navigate the differences between 1603 and 2017, and still mine the play’s relevance, but with a leader unabashedly playing to the white supremacist, violent aspects of our country, maybe that’s not going to be the most challenging part of this process.

Jude: In a broad sense this play to me suggests most powerfully how a culture of violence inevitably turns against all humanity, even the very ones who propagate and wield it.
Racism, misogyny, and other forms of othering are forces of violence, which in this play become agents of murderous destruction. No one wins and ultimately, no one is spared. Because of this violence, Venice loses its military champion, Othello, and Desdemona lose life and love. Even Iago loses his wife, freedom, and any chance for the advancement and respect he craves. Innocent and guilty alike are brought to ruin. Othello is as compelling an argument as I’ve ever experienced for renouncing violence of every kind in our lives, families, communities, and in the world around us.

Stephen: I don’t know if this is quite a theme, but I am struck at how this play presents characters who are very strong but also have great weaknesses. And these frailties, unfortunately, make them susceptible to corruption. We often talk about a “tragic flaw” in the theater — as if it were possible to remove one characteristic and live a heroic life. Shakespeare complicates this idea in a heartbreaking tragic way. It’s as if being human is inherently tragic. We are not all doomed to be destroyed in raging fires of our own making, but the potential lives closer to the surface than we might care to admit. Did I mention it’s funny, too?