Music theater review: Peter Sellars’ ‘Desdemona’ at Berkeley


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We cannot escape Shakespeare. Four-century-old plays provide an ever-renewable source of energy for an industry of composers, dancers, singers, actors, stage directors, filmmakers, writers and academics. Shakespeare, we like to believe, can be a great equalizer, serving all cultures and all causes, bridging high art and crass commercialism. Even, alas, film director Roland Emmerich (whose egregious “Anonymous” opened this weekend) insists on having his say.

It’s not that easy, as “Desdemona,” which was given its U.S. premiere Wednesday night by Cal Performances at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse, proves. The work is the astonishing result of director Peter Sellars inviting the American novelist and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and an African singer-songwriter from Mali, Rokia Traoré, to fill in the blanks in “Othello.”


In a ritual of spellbinding beauty, staged by Sellars, these two women, of different generations and continents, stand up to Shakespeare. Through Morrison’s use of words as magical sacrament and Traoré’s perplexed, probing music, they drain, drop by terrible drop, the bile from an appalling play.

The work is meant to be a dialogue between Othello’s wife Desdemona and her mother’s maid, Barbary, from beyond the grave. Shakespeare makes a brief mention of Desdemona having learned the “Willow Song” from Barbary. Barbary, though often interpreted in footnotes as Barbara, meant only one thing to the British in Shakespeare’s day –- African.

The implication then is that this daughter of a Venetian senator who violates her father’s mandates by marrying a Moor was, in fact, raised by an African woman on African music. Sellars makes that subtext the basis of ‘Desdemona,’ which has an almost operatic form. Lines spoken by the actress Tina Benko as Desdemona are answered by Traoré’s reflective aria-like songs. The actual dialogues, though, are channeled by Benko, who takes on the voices of several characters in the play.

The set, which Sellars devised himself, is of four grave sites, each topped with glassware. Sellars explained in a public talk, on the Berkeley stage Thursday afternoon, that this is a Congo tradition of creating a shared space where the living and dead meet. At each grave site is a high-end microphone, the performers are the dead and their voices are meant to be disembodied but of startling clarity.

There are three backup women singers and two men playing African instruments. Benko is the only non-African. All are dressed in white, the women barefoot, not the men. Every figure on stage has stunningly beautiful features and lit by James F. Ingalls as if they were the finest classical sculpture.

Morrison’s resonant language adds yet another kind of beauty, as do Traoré’s eloquent songs and entrancing voice. The African instruments, kora and n’goni (string instruments made from gourds), are mellow and gorgeous. All that beauty emanating from this, Shakespeare’s ugliest play, becomes disarming in the extreme.


For two hours, without break, this dead Desdemona, performed with incantatory brilliance by Benko, questions Barbary, Othello and her maid Emelia. She hears their stories and they shock her. Morrison invents the tales that Othello told Desdemona to win her. He was an African orphan and escaped slave who became a Venetian general. He and Iago had raped and killed.

Barbary’s back story is also of otherness. And Emilia, Iago’s wife, tells of her resentment as a servant. Shakespeare alludes to an affair between Emilia and Othello, which is usually overlooked. Sellars didn’t overlook that when he staged “Othello” in Vienna and New York two years ago, and he doesn’t overlook it here.

The cultural and social differences become even greater through Traoré’s music. She does not enter into Shakespeare’s world but stands apart from it. Her language is different, her worldview is different. In “Othello” love is everywhere perverted. “We will be judged by how well we love,” Morrison asserts at the end of “Desdemona.” But Traoré opens the discussion further with songs more of the nature of love as part of the environment itself.

There are many, many layers to this “Desdemona.” Iago is not just banished but purged. In Sellars’ “Othello” production, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s pudgy Iago was pure bile personified. His sickly green polo shirt alone gave me nightmares. But in “Desdemona” the women and the Africans rise up. They are now given voices and become real, not Shakespearean fantasies.

“Desdemona,” which continues through Saturday in Berkeley before moving on to Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in New York, has had mixed reviews in Europe (the premiere was in Vienna last spring). Cultural and spiritual and social divides do not bridge easily, seamlessly or gratefully. Beauty from ugliness is not trusted. But, trust me, this is a great, challenging, haunting and lasting work.



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-- Mark Swed, from Berkeley