During the Shakespeare Theatre Festival in picturesque Craiova, a modern adaptation of Othello directed by Suren Shahverdyan at Teatrul Tony Bulandra in Târgovişte (Romania) was showcased on 25 April 2018. Shakespearian scholar Michael Dobson, the distinguished guest of the Festival, praised Shahverdyan's version for being colour-blind and timely (ESRA, Rome 2019). For Scott Jonston (Babel Theatre Festival), Shahverdyan's production was "an extraordinary version of the classic Shakespeare play and Liviu Cheliou was outstanding in the title role". However, a collaborative review lashed the production as "outdated" and stuck in the 1960s Soviet Union, while my exclusive interview with the director of Othello, conducted for the same review, was sadly unexploited in the final version (Cahiers Élisabéthains, 01.11.2019). Therefore, I am taking this opportunity to disclose the outcomes of my conversation with Suren Shahverdyan on his bilateral production of Othello through director's lenses, clarifying his approach on staging Shakespeare and highlighting the benefits and the challenges of cross-cultural partnerships.
It sounds like an obsolete cliché that theatre's language is universal. Yet the Romanian-language production of Othello appointed to the upcoming Armenian director once again reinforced this hard-wearing assertion. In the interview, Suren Shahverdyan affirmed: "true theatre has no nationality or language, it is universal if the director has a creative vision and a message to communicate to audiences".
Irrespective of language barriers (a Romanian-Russian translator assisted the rehearsals), the collaboration with the Romanian troupe proved straightforward for Shahverdyan, who admits there are more similarities than differences between Armenians and Romanians. One of the few discrepancies is in the casting process - unlike Armenian repertory theatres with permanent troupes - Romanian actors are not restricted to a single theatre and can audition anywhere in the country which, according to Shahverdyan, is vital for the development of regional theatres.
While Shahverdyan's minimalist production is elegantly set in black and white with virtually no props, his version is not about race. "Since the election of President Obama, the racial question appears outdated for a contemporary adaptation", clarified the director.
The casting took longer than anticipated and settled seven compelling actors; intensely charismatic Liviu Cheloiu (Othello), playfully balletic Andrada Fuscaș (Desdemona), sleekly intricate Mircea Silaghi (Iago), persuasively masculine Daniel Nuță (Cassio), the explicitly suggestive duo of Ela Ionescu (Emilia) and Camelia Pintilie (Bianca). Several characters are cut in Shahveryan's adaptation, where the central theme is not the jealousy but the human imperfection. Here the white Othello is an outstanding military leader, yet he is incompetent in the art of love, poetry and courtship. "To think that Othello is naïve enough to fall into Yago's trap is unsatisfactory. In my opinion, Othello is a mighty general who doubts in his ability to be a perfect lover and husband for his intelligent and youthful wife. Othello is gradually convinced that Desdemona would eventually lose interest in an unrefined bear-like soldier like himself and seek affection in someone like Cassio, who knows the yearnings of a female heart".
Born into a theatrical family (his father was the former Artistic Director of Sundukian State Academic Theatre), Suren Shahverdyan started acting from his early childhood: "I grew up in [the] theatre, often touring with my parents. I felt immense pride every time I was on stage in a child's role. My true passion for directing developed in the last year at the Theatre Institute, when I had to direct a play for my graduation choosing A Streetcar Named Desire". While his first directorial efforts were primarily moulded by his father, Shahverdyan's artistic vision was influenced by arthouse cinematography and unconventional ideologies. He is a huge fan of the famous Georgian director Robert Sturua, considering Sturua's theatre close to perfection: "his intellectual approach, aesthetic style and dramatic tension created on the stage have inspired me above all".
Edgy, restless and inquisitive, Suren Shahverdyan prefers his autonomy from state-sponsored repertory theatres, fighting for independent theatre in Armenia. His breakthrough on the international arena occurred with his adaptation of Sarah Kane's Psychoses 448. Invitations to festivals flooded after the production participated in Chekhov International Festival in Moscow in 2006. Soon after Shahverdyan was invited to work at the newest repertory theatre named after Tony Bulandra in Târgovişte (Romania). His directorial debut there was a new play entitled Hitler in Love, which also travelled to various European festivals, followed by A Tramway Named Desire, Tennessee Williams's masterpiece close to Shahverdyan's heart since his first directorial steps.
Shahverdyan's third production at Tony Bulandra was Othello in 2016 for which he received the prize for the best director at the Babel Festival in Romania. Othello remains a sold-out production in its hometown and has participated in 18 international festivals across Europe and the Far East, receiving awards and critical praise. "I love working at Tony Bulandra, it has become my second home. They are extremely open and welcoming to all my ideas, it is an immense pleasure for me to direct in this exclusive environment". With his latest production of Carmen based on Prosper Merimee's novella, Shahverdyan continues his partnership with lead actors cast for Othello: Liviu Cheloiu (Othello and Don Jose), Daniel Nuță (Cassio and Locotenentul), Radu Câmpean (Roderigo and Soțul) and Andrada Fuscaș (Desdemona and Actriță).
Following the recent velvet revolution in Armenia, "l'enfant terrible" of the Armenian theatre anticipates more opportunities would emerge for independent theatres. He dared to introduce post-modern playwrights and controversial adaptations, including Jean Genet and Sarah Kane, estimated shocking and risky by critics, regrettably far more conventional than theatregoers in Armenia. Shahverdyan's Othello in Romania was likewise staged for contemporary spectators in mind and carried hardly any resemblance with Soviet productions of the 1960s. Nonetheless, let us not disregard that in the USSR some of the most iconic screen and stage Shakespeare adaptations emerged precisely in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Kozintsev's ground-breaking Hamlet and Lear, Sturua's radical Richard III, Vysotsky's militant Hamlet, that had inspired and radicalised theatre practitioners and cinematographers ever since.
Cross-cultural productions occurring at Theatrul Tony Bulandra in Târgovişte (Romania), reveal mutually enriching collaborations between local theatres and overseas directors, where the power of Shakespeare's timeless drama is not lost in translation but on the contrary helps to make sense of the diverse and complex societies we live in the 21st century.
Jasmine Seymour is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London and Chair of the Armenian Shakespeare Association.
Images courtesy of Suren Shahverdyan