If we had not already had James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer in a strapping "Othello" last month at the Warner Theatre, perhaps the 3 1/2-hour BBC production (tonight at 8 on Channel 26) might seem less torpid. But only slightly.
This taped-for-television version, which launches PBS' fourth season of "The Shakespeare Plays," is envisioned by director Jonathan Miller as a "closet tragedy" that takes place in "rooms beyond rooms." Miller clearly wishes to impart the impression that the viewer is eavesdropping on the tragedy. To that end, the cast mumbles and whispers most of the great speeches. Indeed, things get so confidential at times that the viewer may well consider his presence expendable.
Ironically, Jones was the first choice of the BBC, which maintained that the noble Moor really should be played by a black man. British Equity, the actors' union, objected to the casting, however, on the grounds that the part should go to a British performer. Miller eventually had to settle on Anthony Hopkins, often an accomplished actor, but a decidedly white one.
In what seems like a conscious decision to avoid any further unpleasantness, Hopkins forgoes the heavy makeup that Sir Laurence Olivier once relied upon to cross the racial lines. Hopkins' Othello cannot even be described as vaguely swarthy, which makes all the references to the character's dark looks and exotic demeanor patently ridiculous. Hopkins is, in fact, an exceedingly controlled, well-spoken gentleman for most of the play's duration.
At the height of his jealousy, Othello accuses Desdemona of bestowing her handkerchief on another. "Aaah-eee saaawh the hant-kuf-chiffff," trills Hopkins, who seems more concerned about the quality of his articulation than the state of Desdemona's morals. What rage Hopkins does bring to the part is peevish and sniveling, thereby fostering the notion that what Othello really needs is a good spanking.
Iago, the crafty ensign who engineers Othello's downfall with lies and innuendo, is acted by Bob Hoskins, who achieved stardom in England recently as a sadistic thug in a gangster movie titled "The Long Good Friday." He is apparently not about to risk his new-found image. His Iago is obviously of the lower classes -- loutish, vulgar and thick. As costumed, Hoskins appears to have no neck and a dumpy body, which suggests, when one also takes into account his sniggering laugh, that Iago is the eighth dwarf -- Nasty.
If the overall production had more drive, it is possible that the viewer might feel more charitable toward the performances. But Miller, in his efforts to bestow a quiet intimacy on the text, has merely succeeded in slowing the tragic events to a near-standstill. The camera lingers on pensive faces. The actors brood, whisper to themselves, and brood some more. And still the camera lingers.
And when Desdemona retreats to her chamber and prepares for her fateful night in bed, what does Miller place conspicuously on her dressing table? A skull! Desdemona gazes at the skull. The skull stares back. Meanwhile, the isle of Cyprus dozes off. So may the home audience.