Into the Dark: playing Desdemona

My most recent project saw me treading the boards on the London fringe once again, this time in an adaptation of Othello at the Drayton Arms,  called Into the Dark. Directed by Polly Heinkel, training on the directing course at East 15, the show focused on the story of Shakespeare’s play through Iago’s eyes, or rather through his memory of the events.

As soon as I got back from Sicily I was straight into rehearsals, which had already begun for the other cast members a week or two before. I’d learnt most of my lines while I was away so could get stuck in straight away. I played Desdemona, a young woman I’ve always struggled to understand, but through a mixture of the original Shakespeare text and new writing by Polly, I came to share her story with the audience.

I think the aspect of Desdemona I struggled with the most at first was her supposed goodness – how she is perceived as the ultimate symbol of virtue and a good soul. A friend helpfully pointed out that her decision to go against her father’s wishes and marry Othello was in fact anything but ‘good’ in Brabantio’s mind, and shows a great inner strength and courage. The more I dug into the original text and applied my discoveries to the new writing (which was a monologue), the richer a picture I uncovered of a complex and at times contradictory individual.

Yours truly as Desdemona

She is strong and brave enough to disobey her father in a time when the father was lord and master, yet her conversation with Emilia shows a naivety when it comes to her perception of the behaviour of women. However, despite this apparent naivety, she is playful and matches her wit against Iago when he teases her and Emilia.

We set the production in 1950s Mississippi, at a time when black people were regularly persecuted for the colour of their skin, and lynching was a very real threat. This allowed us to play with the setting of the play without diminishing the relevance. As our research showed, my first sentence there is sadly a rather naïve way of putting it, as black people are still being persecuted because of the colour of their skin, and we discovered several distressing cases of modern lynchings. Perhaps by setting the play in a more recent time period, our director hoped to show the audience how the themes it deals with were not just confined to several hundred years ago.

Othello looks down on the man he once considered a friend

On a purely fickle note, one advantage of setting it in the 1950s was that Kelly (who played Emilia) and I got to wear beautiful 1950s-style dresses with petticoats underneath. I felt rather girly for once! As we set the action in Mississippi, American accents were required of the cast (apart from Othello, to make him seem even more of an outsider). While fellow cast member Toby gave Iago a southern drawl, Polly asked me to focus on what is termed ‘General American’, suggesting Desdemona is not originally from Mississippi. Although I haven’t spent much time on this accent before I enjoyed working with it and seemed to do rather well! It’s definitely one I would like to work on further.

Othello is possibly my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays – the language is beautiful, witty, dark, clever, the characters a joy to behold with their many layers, the story devastating as we see the characters’ worlds torn apart by hatred, jealousy and ambition. To work on an adaptation of this mighty play with such a talented director, assistant director and cast of fellow East 15ers was a pleasure. Plus I got to work in the lovely Drayton Arms, which does the most delicious chocolate brownies!

Take a look at some pics of the show below, courtesy of our assistant director and photographer extraordinaire, Alex Romberg. They’re in reverse order from near the end of the play to the start – I somehow managed to upload them in the wrong order then didn’t have the patience to reorder them one-by-one. Enjoy!

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