A full review will come as part of an overview of the videos available, but for now…
In 1989, as part of what IMDB describes as a “TV Movie,” British (but South African-born) actress Janet Suzman directed her one and only film, an adaptation of Othello with South African actor John Kani in the lead and Richard Haddon Haines as Iago. This was based upon her own stage production that ran in apartheid South Africa in 1987. Contemporaneous with the 1989 Trevor Nunn version, this marks one of the first captured Othellos that was played by a black actor.
This is a wonderful production. Kani’s Othello is no brute, but a charmingly passionate man; we see him as a lover, a storyteller. When he breaks from this into violence, it’s a shock, but we’re prepared by it by the slow dismantling of his appearance–from fully outfitted and formal, to disheveled, to finally shirtless and almost savage in look. If the jealousy that is the center of the play is between three characters, it is obvious why Suzman picked some of her actors: both Joanna Weinberg as Desdemona and Neil McCarthy as Cassio are incredibly attractive, both with fair skin and flowing blond hair, in stark visual contrast to the handsome and very black Kani.
Moving away from these three, the cast begins to look more and more typical, almost mundane in appearance: Richard Haddon Haines’ Iago is a bald, bearded and embittered man; his wife Emilia (as played by Dorothy Gould), plainer and obviously more put-upon than her foil Desdemona. When Cassio pays Emilia attention at her arrival in Cyprus, she is obviously uncomfortable, casting glances at her husband (making us wonder if there’s something to Iago’s stated belief that Cassio may have had an affair with her). Cassio, too, is very physical with Desdemona, allowing Iago’s asides to us to be all the more believable.
This physicality is pervasive and has a cumulative effect; it’s no surprise, then, that of the versions I’ve seen thus far, this is the most sensual. Othello and Desdemona are passionate with each other; she’s very playful with him, but when he begins to suspect her, his affection takes on a more violent quality, one that gives her pause. Bianca and Cassio are obviously in a sexual relationship, lusty and physical. And if I’m not mistaken, Emilia is played as pregnant.
Kani, with his more African (than South African) accent, makes for both a visual and aural outsider. Haines is dynamic as Iago, almost a personification of the devil. Weinberg’s Desdemona is at once both innocent and flirtatious. And if these three performances sound excellent (they are), it’s Gould’s Emilia that is the standout for me. She is the strongest Emilia that I’ve seen thus far, and I don’t mean strength of the acting performance; I mean her character is strong. Yes, she still wants to please her husband, but not because it’s her place to, but because it’s what she wants. And in late in the play, when she begins to understand what is unfolding around her, her anger is what we as an audience are feeling.
Does everything Suzman throws at the screen work? No. Some of the freeze frames and video shot inserts are more distracting than helpful. And even with all the things I liked about the production, there were still moments that felt lifeless, that missed some kind of spark.
Verdict: This is one you should see. The top four performances (especially that of Gould) are excellent, and worth watching. Plus, it’s a document of the first time a black actor played the role in South Africa (of course, it would be better if the video itself gave us some kind of context or historical discussion, but even without it, this is a solid production).