After he first saw director Peter Sellars' production of Desdemona, Sydney Festival Director Lieven Bertels sat down with him to discuss the show. Here was a production of Shakespeare’s Othello, reimagined, renamed and repopulated by women. What was it about this radiant angel, this innocently murdered woman that demanded our attention?
WHAT DO WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT DESDEMONA?
"The 21st century needs other images, more productive images and more real images of interracial marriage. Africa is a part of all of our lives, not this distant, imaginary place. Africa has been imagined for way too long, and the reality is actually way more important for our generation," Sellars says.
"I wanted to really respond to what’s missing. What actually went on between them? What made them happy? And what actually caused them to fall apart? I asked Toni Morrison to write those things. It all started when I went to lunch with Toni one day, and I said, 'There’s this really bad play called Othello. And she spent the next four hours telling me how wrong I was.'"
Sellars relates the story. He took up Toni Morrison’s challenge, and staged a "powerful production" of Othello with Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Iago. She attended those rehearsals and together they "rethought the play from the ground up. But there were still questions."
So, the director reversed the challenge to Morrison, and asked Toni if she could "write something Shakespeare simply couldn’t write".
It was a minor element of the fourth act that caught their attention; the thread that might unravel the whole play, the famous willow song that she learned from her mother’s maid Barbary, "who died while singing it of a broken heart".
WHO IS BARBARY?
"In 1600, 'Barbary' meant Africa. A delegation of ambassadors from the Barbary Coast came to visit the palace in 1600, it was the first time Londoner’s had seen Africans of power, splendidly dressed – and they were 'Barbary'," Sellars explains.
What the audience effectively learns is that this play has another African character and Desdemona, Shakespeare's "most perfect creation" was raised on African songs and African stories. Toni Morrison’s work is about recovering lost histories and with Rokia Traoré’s music and lyrics this is achieved "in African tradition, as imagination, as poetry, as this inspired chant and narrative".
This iteration gives characters the space to unfold, for loose ends to be tied up.
"Desdemona and Othello marry on a Tuesday night, and he murders her on Wednesday – it’s not a long marriage. There’s not a whole lots of space to figure things out."
Morrison places her play in the afterlife where there’s nothing to do but figure things out. "To say what you knew but you couldn’t say because you were living under pressure, you were living under threat."
"Women’s silence is used by Shakespeare. Toni Morrison responds to that in the 21st century, where women are no longer silent… Morrison is a deep reader to say the least. Her reading of Shakespeare means we can never read the play the same way again."
Desdemona will run at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from 23 – 25 Oct, 2015