Arts interview

Inside Othello

An interview with the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble

Since its premiere over 400 years ago, the timeless story of Othello has seen many interpretations. MIT’s Shakespeare Ensemble presents the title character as a female boxer, an exciting twist on the tale of intrigue and betrayal. The Tech interviewed director Susanna Noon and lead actress Samantha Harper ’16 to learn about their vision for the play and the challenges they faced behind the scenes.

The Tech: Why did the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble choose to transform Othello into a female boxer rather than stay true to the original tale?

Susanna Noon: Well, first off, I want to say that I am never interested in adapting a Shakespeare play in a way that obscures the original themes present in the show. I believe that my choice to change the setting and the context actually enhances those themes — of alienation, jealousy, bigotry, sexuality, and rage. How did I come to boxing? I started out by crafting a vision around what I’d like to see performed if I were in the audience.

I didn’t really want to see anything set in 1604, so I decided to update the setting to a present day location similar to NYC (Venice) and then to Vegas (Cyprus). In the original context Othello is an outsider, an African man who marries a white woman, yet also a respected General.

I thought to myself, “In this modern world, how can I make Othello more of an outsider other than simply by his race, but at the same time keep the military hierarchy of the language?” I immediately thought of the mafia and the regimented hierarchy present in that world. Then I thought of Vegas, then I thought of boxing, and voila… I arrived at a champion boxer, someone with ties to the criminal underworld, who is loved and respected, but marries a senator’s daughter.

When we cast Samantha (a woman), it just seemed too perfect to make the choice to play Othello as female — to add another layer of “otherness” by making it a gay relationship between Othello and Desdemona. There is already so much exploration of gender, it just seemed like a great choice. We did have to change some of the pronouns, but otherwise the language is all the same. Perhaps surprisingly, making Othello female doesn’t change much in the script!

TT: When did you first encounter Othello? Did you like it when you first read it?

SN: I’ve read it in school a few times. As a professional actor, I also once understudied Desdemona, so I’ve seen it many, many times. As opposed to some of the other great tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear), Othello is really amazing when it’s performed live. It’s just such a fast-paced trajectory toward the tragic end! Characters enter while talking, already in mid-scene, and the whole thing happens over the course of two days! It’s great.

Samantha Harper: My first interaction with Othello was in my Shakespeare class in senior year of high school. I enjoyed all of the Shakespeare I read that semester, but this was one of my favorites. I used it as the basis for my final thesis about Shakespeare’s development as an author and views on relationships through the lens of Romeo and Juliet’s “excited newlywed” relationship (written in 1562) to Desdemona and Othello’s relationship based on “pity” (1603).

But, this Othello is different. It’s exciting. It’s sexy. It’s lesbian. It’s very fast-paced and I think the audience will get swept away by the pace and action of the show.

TT: How many hours a week do you put into the production?

SN: Too many to count. We rehearse 16 hours a week but I spend hours each day before and after rehearsal preparing, emailing, shopping for costumes, ordering knives… all kinds of fun stuff.

SH: Well, rehearsal is 4 hours on Sundays and 7-10 p.m. Monday–Thursday. So, on average about 14 hours a week.

TT: What is your favorite scene and why?

SN: I love the final scene. It gives me chills. I won’t give anything away, but yes, people die. And there is a lot going on for all of the characters; it’s just brilliant Shakespeare. But I also love the club scene in the first act… seeing Cassio dance is something I always look forward to!

SH: My favorite scene is the bar fight. It’s just madness on stage and everyone worked really hard on it.

TT: What is the most challenging aspect of playing your character?

SH: Othello is a demanding character. Once she has decided something, she commits to it wholeheartedly, but her brain works much faster than the average person. I had to do a lot of work developing an “inner monologue” for Othello so that all of her intentions made sense to me.

TT: Has your vision of Othello changed since you first began working on this project?

SN: For sure! It’s constantly evolving as I work with designers on their designs and the actors on their characters. I always let their influence guide the vision to some degree. I see it as a collaborative process as much as possible.

TT: Anything else you’d like to add?

SH: Changing Othello’s gender was a huge decision, and one that was not taken lightly. We discussed the timeliness of the gay rights movement and the empowerment of a young half-black woman. It is a new and interesting twist.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.