`Othello' on PBS an arresting drama

Preview: `Masterpiece Theatre's cop drama version of Shakespeare merits attention.

January 28, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

After being forced to read Othello in more college courses than I care to remember, and seeing Shakespeare modernized far too often, word that Masterpiece Theatre was doing the tragedy as a contemporary cop drama didn't exactly set my heart racing. Not even a screenplay by the brilliant Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice) could raise my dismal expectations.

Was I wrong.

This Othello, about a black police commissioner and set in Scotland Yard, is a mesmerizing dramatic ride through race, ambition, paranoia, false friendship, political correctness, jealousy and lies. I will not dare the wrath of entire college English departments by suggesting that Davies improves on the original. But, for the first time, I understand Iago's motivation and the murderous madness that claims Othello.

As befits the medium of television, this is an Othello more for the eye than the ear. Hold that thought as you listen to Russell Baker introduce the drama tonight, because the venerable host looks as if he might spit on the carpet as he explains that characters speak the "modern English of TV cop shows" rather than "Shakespeare's beautiful blank verse."

"He throws out the poetry," is the way Baker describes Davies' adaptation.

But the camera can have poetry, too, and you'll feel its power from the very first shot - an intense close-up of the luminous face of Othello's beloved, Dessie (Keeley Hawes), as she sleeps. From there, the camera moves to the face of John Othello (Eamonn Walker) as he intently studies his lover's visage. In that initial lyrical movement - from the pale white face of Dessie to the black face of Othello - the camera grounds this drama in race in a way that's impossible to ignore or forget.

There's also poetry in the performances by Walker and Christopher Eccleston, who plays the Iago character. Here, he's re-named Ben Jago, the deputy commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police and mentor to Othello, an upcoming officer.

Othello makes headlines quelling a race riot, and the same night, a newspaper reporter overhears the Police Commissioner making racist remarks. The journalist writes an article, the commissioner is forced to resign, and Othello is named as his replacement by an opportunistic prime minister.

The range of Eccleston's performance, as his Jago moves in the space of few heartbeats from congratulating Othello to privately howling with rage at being passed over in favor of his protege, is stunning. This is the motivation: a white mentor losing out to his black protege because their political masters want to score public relations points.

We have access to Jago's mind via his direct address to the camera, telling us what he's really feeling as he goes about the business of destroying Othello, in large part because Othello accepts the promotion as his due. I didn't think the device could be used more adroitly than Davies employed it in House of Cards. Again, I was wrong.

The secret of Walker's performance is that he uses his body to show Othello wrestling constantly with his intensity. From those opening close-ups, his desire to be one with Dessie is palpable. And, as you notice such little movements as the quick ripple of a muscle in his forearm as he tries to gently touch her face, you start to feel his own fear of the emotions she stirs.

Maybe some of the poetry is lost in Davies' adaptation. But it's a small cost to pay for the new wisdom this "TV cop" version has to offer on the difference between being black and white today.

Othello

When: 9 tonight.

Where: MPT (Channels 22, 67).

In brief: "Othello" wisely re-imagined as a modern-day cop drama.

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