3Transformations: A new context plus a new medium equals a new meaning!
Anthony: Chris, I know you are not a big fan of adaptations of Shakespeare, but don??™t you think the Andrew Davies film based on Shakespeare??™s Othello successfully brings a whole new meaning to a contemporary audience that perhaps a faithful re-enaction of the stage play itself does not
CHRIS: Well, yes. I have to admit in this adaptation; Andrew Davies does a great job in making Shakespeare relevant to a modern audience. He retains the core themes – Othello??™s human frailty, sexual jealousy, deception, self-deception and ability to be led by Iago??™s misinformation and manipulation. And there are obvious parallels to Shakespeare??™s character paradigms in the Davies film. However, a film version based on a play that was written 400 years ago has to reconceptualize a number of elements in order to make it connect with a modern audience and I will state that Davies does this rather well.
Anthony: Davies film is set in contemporary London compared to 1600 Venice.
Chris: Yes, and as a result there is a natural shift in values that Davies has to account for in order to create a new meaning relevant to today.
Anthony: That??™s true; Davies changes all the characters slightly. He transforms Othello from a Military General to a black metropolitan police commissioner; Iago from his lieutenant to Jago, Othello??™s assistant commissioner. Cassio becomes Michael Cass, who is appointed by Othello to protect his wife from racially motivated rioters. Desdemona, who is Dessie in the film is a much more independent character, reflecting a more modern sensibility. And Emilia, Iago??™s superficial love, is portrayed as Lulu in the film.
Chris: Yes, and he transforms them to make them more believable to a modern audience, for example, I think he gives Iago better motivation in his vendetta against Othello. By promoting him above Jago??™s position, it unleashes feelings about Othello that Jago never knew he had, including a twisted love for Othello, with a sexual element.
Anthony: Yes, that??™s something that would not have been portrayed in Shakespeare??™s time.
Chris: Yes, and Davies alters the relationship of Dessie and Lulu so that they have been best friends since school, which gives their relationship a more modern slant and intensity. And he also changes the role of Cassio in an interesting way.
Anthony: Michael Cass is a younger man and he is obviously attracted to her but of course she turns him down. Richard Coyle plays the role beautifully.
Chris: Yes, the changes offer an insight into the modern world and he deals with the issues in Othello according to our modern psyches, tastes and values.
Anthony: Well hardly anyone uses a handkerchief these days.
Chris: That??™s right. In fact, the whole plot in Shakespeare??™s play turns on the handkerchief scene. But there??™s a whole generation today who have never used or even seen one. Instead, Davies uses a silk robe, which is not only relevant to today but offers more metaphorical significance to the situation than a handkerchief does. It is part of their lovemaking and when Cass wears it, it becomes a symbol of sexual betrayal in a more potent way.
Anthony: What about the sexual element to the relationship that Davies is able to portray This would have been against Elizabethan values and unable to be portrayed on stage in Shakespeare??™s time. Do you think Davies??™ film helps us to connect more strongly with Othello??™s sexual jealousy, an emotion that most people have experienced
Chris: I think it does. The way the themes are dealt with in each text cannot escape the context of the era in which it is produced. The play??™s themes and values are informed by the great debates of Shakespeare??™s time including cuckoldry, Venetian morality and racial stereotypes. But the film has to adapt to modern sensibilities and perspectives.
Anthony: Yes, in the play Othello reveals his sexual anxiety early on when he proclaims ???O curse of marriage that we can call these delicate creatures ours / and not their appetites!??? Shakespeare communicates through language while Davies is able to explore these themes through the visual medium. Do you think this brings the audience closer to the characters and themes
Chris: Yes, well film is a visual medium. To compensate for Othello??™s verbosity, Davies makes him a man of action, rather than a man of words. Soliloquys are a real casualty of the film medium but Davies compensates for this using voice overs and direct to camera shots so that the audience can get right into the mind of the character. Also, unlike Luhrmann??™s Romeo and Juliet, Davies presents the story in modern dialogue, which also helps to create new meaning for an audience, making it more accessible, and more like the ???police blotter story??™ that it lends itself to.
Anthony: In Shakespeare, racism is revealed in the language also. Othello is referred to as ???An old black ram??™, ???a Barbary Horse??™ and ???Thick lips??™. In the film, this is dealt with using visual techniques. Racism emerges as an issue when Othello is promoted and Jago experiences feelings of latent racism. These feelings are metaphorically mirrored in the diegetic music score and jerky handheld camera movement in the scene. Also, the war between Cyprus and the Venetians is replaced by the London Race Riots.
Chris: I think Shakespeare??™s Othello lends itself to a modern film adaptation perhaps more than any other of his tragedies because the driving themes of the play – ???sexual jealousy and psycho monsters??™, as Axel Kruse refers to it, are themes that abound in the proliferation of police television dramas and films these days such as NCIS, CSI & Law and Order, ??“ all dealing with the unhinged psyche??™s that fill this genre. You can??™t get more unhinged than Othello??™s psychological state that leads him to murder Desdemona and this makes the play especially suitable for an adaptation to a modern medium and audience.
Anthony: Point taken, but I think Davies is able to go deeper into this genre in the film. The murder of Dessie (Desdemona) is made even more powerful and hard to watch as we, as an audience can get right up close to the emotions and feelings experienced in this dramatic scene by the characters.
Chris: Talk about role of women.
Anthony: Shakespeare also explores the effect of Othello??™s emotions, ie jealousy on his ability to behave and think rationally. It completely unravels him and reduces him to animalistic behaviour. Such behaviour is defined in stage acting and limited by the medium. In the Davies film, the camera perspective is able to impose new and extended meaning to that aspect.
Chris: Yes, the camera movement that Davies uses illustrates the emotional state of the characters, the torment and madness and craziness in a way that you just can??™t communicate on stage and in some ways, makes it more real. He uses a handheld camera that shifts between high and low angles and close ups and medium shots e.g. when it follows Jago down the hallway after he??™s found out that Othello has been promoted. Davies is able to add more visual ironies and metaphors within the film text, which adds depth to his meaning.
Anthony: In addition, the viewer is able to bring their own perspective to a film interpretation, in a way that they can??™t to a play, so that of course brings a whole new meaning to each viewing.
Chris: That??™s right, so in a post modern sense with the transformation of Othello to a modern context and the contemporary film genre, Davies has been able to generate a whole new level of meaning relevant to audiences today.