EN2372 Shakespeare:

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EN2372 Shakespeare: Genre, text and performance.

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Performance Review: ‘O’ (2001) Directed by, Tim Blake Nelson.

The 1995 release of the film ‘Clueless’, based on Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’, saw a new trend emerge in Hollywood. By adapting classic literary texts into modern day ‘Teen Dramas’, the film industry and those working in education may argue that such films allow youngsters an insight into plays and novels written hundreds of years ago. In effect, the work of Shakespeare and others is made accessible to the young, and in a world where reading is now perhaps considered secondary, many may well relish the fact that classic stories are still being presented and enjoyed in this ever evolving and advancing society. As Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt argue: “…this shift to a cultural studies approach opens new possibilities for a kind of Shakespeare criticism with wider appeal to a non-academic public (which presumes, of course, that the Shakespearean academic necessarily wants such a popular audience).

It could be argued that this new trend in making Shakespeare accessible to teens through film, is merely a moneymaking commodity. Indeed many of these adaptations pay little respect to the script they are supposedly based upon. However, because the tag line of the film hails itself as being, for example: “an exceptionally intelligent and powerful contemporary adaptation,’’ youngsters, in fear of tackling the original, flock to the cinemas substituting filmic text for literary text while assuming satisfactory understanding. However, when one has been fortunate enough to study a literary text in full, it becomes clear that these supposed reworks neglect to convey many of the details found in the original. And perhaps, this is when one realises that producers of these films are merely manipulating young audiences into regarding the films as being as credible as the original. It could be argued that filmmakers are merely using the authority of a playwrights or novelists name, when really what they have produced in no more than a second-rate adaptation adhering to Hollywood’s code rather than a literary one.

Tim Blake Nelson, director of the 2001 film ‘O’ said: “Before filming began, the cast rehearsed and then performed ‘Othello’ to the entire crew of the film so that they understood the characters and story of the play in detail.” Although the film itself could not be regarded as a remake of the play, it could be argued that the film is a worthy tribute to the original. Tim Blake Nelson and Brad Kaaya, writer of the screenplay have produced a film, which depicts the major themes and central story line found in the original text. This review will discuss how the filmmakers have set about retelling the story of ‘Othello’ to a young, modern audience.

‘O’ is set in an exclusive, Independent boarding School. Odin, presumably named after the ‘God of war and Death, Poetry and Wisdom,’ has received a full scholarship to attend the institute due to his talent for playing basketball. He is the only black person to attend the school, which immediately sets him apart from his colleges. Odin has come from a poor background; he is from the ‘Hood’ and has had to battle against gangsters and a drug addiction before being swept away to a safe and exclusive life at school. Odin, much like Othello is presented as being different, mystical, strange and from a ‘foreign place’. However, in this adaptation the notion of ‘race and identity’ is more heavily focused on than the original. Racism is given a perverse twist. These white, privileged pupils “desire to be black”. Here we see a clever reversal and ironic twist on traditional views on what is desirable when it comes to race and ethnic background. Skin colour has always been a statement and while previously the tragic ‘mulatto’ or dark skinned man was vilified in society and popular culture, ‘black living’ has managed to turn this ‘rude boy’ image to its own advantage making it attractive to whites. The widespread popularity of ‘Music of Black Origin’ has perhaps made many white youngsters become impressed by, and even in awe of ‘black’ attitudes. Not only does Odin’s talent for sport excite the pupils, but also, nearly every character appears to desire his race. This point is mainly presented through the film’s soundtrack. Rap and Hip-Hop is played non-diagetically all the way through the film. In using music in this way, director Tim Blake Nelson is foregrounding the thoughts and feelings of the black protagonist and giving the audience access to his psyche only through a black music medium. Like the characters in this film, a white audience may feel alienated by the music while at the same time, craving the access to Hip-Hop lifestyle and language afforded to Odin by birth.  Throughout the film, the lyrics of these artists reiterate the point that being black is something to be proud of, even envied. An example of this is found in the scene where Odin and Desi are talking in her dormitory, as they speak we hear a song by an artist called ‘Black Star’ who repeatedly raps the line: “Black people unite and let’s all get down.” By reversing the attitude towards black people, we can see the director has brought the story into the modern day.

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The point of ‘blackness’ being envied is portrayed throughout the course of the film. Indeed, as Barbara Hodgdon points out in her essay, ‘Racing Othello’, the name ‘Desi’ is ‘shorthand for desiring a subject or object’. In the original text we read how Desdemona falls in love with Othello because she is so intrigued by him, and because she is so in awe of the elaborate stories he tells. We read in one of Othello’s speeches how “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, And I loved her for she did pity them.”(1:3:67) By having Desi desiring to be ...

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