I just finished watching Antony Sher’s Primo; it’s a one-man performance Sher adapted from Primo Levi‘s description of his experience surviving Auschwitz (If This Is A Man).
I found it after reading Sher’s biography Beside Myself about his life growing up gay in South Africa and moving to London to become an actor. I had to read it for one of my classes at the Shakespeare Institute, because he’s famous amongst bardolaters for playing Richard III, Macbeth, and Leontes (as well as recently playing Falstaff in last year’s RSC 1 and 2 Henry IV).
What has any of this got to do with Shakespeare? Well, I’m really interested in exploring the idea of “dangerous Shakespeare”; that is, how and in what ways is performing Shakespeare dangerous?
For example, Nazi Germany’s favorite Shakespeare play was Merchant of Venice. Is Merchant an anti-Semitic play? Can we still perform it today? Should we?
Most bardolaters go round and round about Shakespeare being the “universal humanist.” He was 400 years ahead of his time with his characters and his sympathy for them. He wrote great parts for women, sympathized with black and Jewish characters, and wrote about the horrors of colonialism before anyone even knew there were any.
Or did he? What if Shakespeare thought Petruchio should tame his shrew, Othello deserved to die, and/or it was right to force a speechless Shylock to become a Christian? How would our view of Shakespeare, and particularly Shakespeare in performance on the modern stage, have to change?
I wonder if someone would let Sher perform Primo in rep with Merchant. It might make for some interesting conversations.
What do you think?
I checked the Sedona Film Festival website today and discovered that they were showing Orson Welles’ film Othello. I ran over and got tickets, and saw the 3:10 showing.
It started off with a speech about the film by Beatrice Welles, one Orson Welles’ daughters. These are just mostly notes for myself, but for anyone interested, she claimed that:
- She sees herself as managing the Orson Welles’ estate; Othello is the only film that she owns. She said that Othello and Chimes at Midnight were the only films that were not “messed with” by other editors; that is, the only films that were untouched and edited only by Welles himself.
- Orson Welles originally wanted to be a painter, and traveled to Ireland to paint. She credits his directorial eye to this background.
- She feels Chimes at Midnight (showing Wednesday) was his best acting performance.
- Welles got his first acting job (originally only in order to raise money) at the Gates Theatre in Dublin by claiming that he was a big Broadway star (actually, she says they knew he wasn’t, but liked his “hutzpah”).
- The actor in Othello who plays Iago was from this theatre.
- The film got little attention when it was released due to Welles needing five years to finish it, in which time black and white films fell out of favor. It won a major award in Europe, however.
- Welles was “the most wonderful father in the world; very funny” (she also however admitted her half-sisters might not have had the same experience with him).
- She said whenever Welles did not know what project to work on next, he always “went back to the Bard.”
She also brought with her and displayed a pen and ink drawing that Welles made of the last day of shooting in Venice.
Although apparently suffering from sciatica, she was also there for a Q&A at the end. I asked three questions, which she was kind enough to respond to:
- Did Welles prepare the script? Yes, she says he wrote the whole script himself. [There were drastic and major cuts, more below.]
- What was Welles take on Iago’s motivation? She said Welles told her that the source of Iago’s problems was that he was insecure, and his various jealousies all arose from this.
- Welles has a very deep, resonant voice. Did he do any voice training? No, nor did he believe in it.
I enjoyed the film; however Welles hacked the bejesus out of it to get it down to 90 minutes and also added some voice-overs in the beginning to move the plot along. I think a perhaps unfortunate side effect of some of the early cuts is that Desdemona moves to the background; this is Othello and Iago’s story. Desdemona’s early lines are cut and instead she is represented visually as innocent. For example, there’s a gorgeous shot of her lying down on the marital bed with her blond hair fanned out.
There are also some fairly famous lines cut, the most noticeable to me being the “circumcised dog” line (“I took by the throat the circumcised dog, And smote him, thus.”). In this staging, Othello stabs himself first, then says his final lines. He avoids the problem of where did the weapon come from by having Othello behind bars; there’s no chance for anyone to intervene. (There are lots of scenes shot with very prominent iron bars, a visual motif for Othello trapping himself or being trapped.)
The overall effect of the film is dark and haunting and, I think, works, although I felt he cut the actual murder scene a bit too short to have its full effect.
For fun, if you’re interested, I found a 1955 New York Times review of the film.