"Othello": not so black and white

by Simon de Carvalho '14

Just how black-and-white are right and wrong?

This is the resounding question Shakespeare’s Othello poses, and the current HRDC production, directed by Nathan Hilgartner ’14 and in the middle of a two-week run at the newly renamed Farkas Hall, pays special attention to this very powerful question. Tickets for the show are available at the Harvard Box Office.

The most striking facet of this production is designer Madie Hays ’13 all-white set, which sets the stage (as it were) for the obvious racial themes in the play to be a main part of the image of this production. All of the characters save Othello himself wear white costumes; Othello alone wears black.

"Othello’s problem is one of isolation," says Hilgartner. "His problem of not knowing where to turn is deeply tied into his status as a racial outsider in Venetian society. In order to vividly present this isolation, we made specific stylistic choices about the uses of the colors black and white onstage in costumes and set. On a sea of white, Othello floats alone dressed in black."

And the symbolism of the set does not stop merely with the race issues that the play deals with. On a subtler level, the black-and-white elements onstage highlight the great moral dichotomy of right and wrong. When the set is contrasted with the blurring of morality in the play—the veils of deception and deceit, the countless actions only initiated because of a prior lie—the result is that the black-and-white visuals of the play blend into a grey in the mind. In Othello, we don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong.

"The play grapples with huge issues of trust and honesty in human relationships. Othello is confronted with the universal problem of being unable to see past the surface," says Hilgartner, and so for Othello, morality and trust are much more than black-and-white issues.

The fact that things are not so cut and dry is highlighted by the lighting design, which often douses the all-white stage in red or green; additionally, deception is modeled physically by long curtains which unfurl periodically throughout the course of the show.

To these curtains Hilgartner ascribes particular importance: "This interpretation of the play really focuses on the question of surface and deception. I wanted the main visual metaphor to be a set of curtains, like veils or blinders, that gradually come to occupy the space and mask the full picture of what’s happening. As Iago’s deceptions start to take hold of Othello’s mind, these curtains just start dropping in—the characters don’t see it, but for the audience it’s all too clear what’s happening."

He adds that "the curtains almost start to feel like another character onstage—they have a presence and a dynamic way of changing the physical world of the play as Othello’s world is broken apart inside his own mind."

And this is the lasting image that Othello leaves with the viewer: the fractured mind of a black man whose life has been ruined by deception and lies—by curtains and bursts of color—and all of this cast in stunning relief against bright, stark white.