The appearance of Paul Robeson and Margaret Webster in "Othello" at Brattle Hall gives Boston theatre-goers and opportunity to see one of literature's finest dramas in a production unequalled in our, if not in all generations. The ability of Paul Robeson as an actor and the genius of Margaret Webster as a director combine with a fine supporting cast to create a performance of dramatic artistry which will always shile brightly in the annals of the American Theatre.
The sources of this greatness are many and varied, but the first of these is the acting of Paul Robeson. Following a finer tradition of Shakesperean interpretation than the American stage has seen for several years, Mr. Robeson dominates the play not because of his role, but through the fine quality of his characterization. Othello's warrior of great strength and fearlessness is also a man of a simple nature that is receptive soil for the seeds of jealousy planted by Iago. Watching Robeson's performance, one can see this jealousy blight the tenderness of his love at the start as in his description of his love to the Duke of Venice, and develop into the towering passion which drives him at the climax to the murder of his wife. To portray the power of this jealousy which is destroying Othello's soul, Robeson does not rely upon his magnificent voice alone. To this he adds a remarkable depth of emotion which is essential in making Shakespearean tragedies believable. It is the realization of feeling behind Robeson's words and actions that makes the audience accept the Moor as a very real, terrifying, but pitiful character.
Robeson, however, is but the major part of a complete theatrical spectacle. The rest of it depends upon the portrayal of the crucial roles of Iago, Desdemona, and Emilia, and upon the direction and setting of the play as a whole. As director, Margaret Webster presents work that is perhaps better than her previous successes with Shakespeare. It is through the directing that the play becomes a living thing. Upon her conception of the play depends the unity of the final product. She has created the motivation which in the written form is hard to follow, by emphasizing the characters of the minor roles and their importance in the plot. Also she has added subtle moods created with music and lighting, and usage of an excellent unit set that is readily adaptable to simple and effective changes, executed with great speed.
Combined with these, the talent of the supporting cast completes the production. As the evil-spleened, ambitions Iago, Jose Ferrer mixed humor, cunning and villainy to portray this greatest of all stage villains, and was very successful in creating an Iago that could be both Othello's friend and enemy. Margaret Webster as Emilia was as competent an actress as she is a director, and turned in one of the best supporting performances of many seasons, while Uta Hagen was both charming and beautiful in the role of Desdemona.