Almost as in a revolutionary manifest, the play Desdemona, performed by Stefan Kirov Drama theatre of Sliven, directed by Petar Denchev, speaks out radical, significant and difficult to perceive views about women, the liberating role of sexual desire and violence intertwined in family love relationships.
Paula Vogel’s Desdemona, staged for the first time by the playwright herself at the end of the 70s of the 20th century, is important about the architecture of feminism in theatre and the woman as a centre of life perception model. In order to identify the basic points in the play, we should consider the cultural traditions of universities in the spirit of artes liberales. To imagine a place where, radical for their times, political and historical views about man, women, minorities, the society as a whole were freely expressed and debated. This club event provided room for expression mainly of poets and prose writers like Allen Ginsburg in the 50s. By turning it into a tradition, it was gradually expanded to a serious network of regular academic conventions about philosophical and political views, first steps of change and small social revolutions.
In the translation of the play we discover that Desdemona was read for the first time on stage in October 1977 at the Cornell University in Ithaca, New York state. Vogel uses the well-known plot of Othello’s classical tragedy in order to open a secret, imaginary door to him, revealing one night in the life of Desdemona, just before her death. Here the very director has created a space for interpretation of the strong feminist motives in the play – the chamber stage is actually the maiden room for laundry and collection of dirty underwear, to vanish the marks from secret desires. The presence of Othello is brief but also symbolic – a neon sign, marketing of family happiness. Othello is the symbol of the material love fantasies of girls and its attribution to men. Whereas, the three women on stage represent the experiences of the body from three different points of view: escaped from the prison of decorum, Desdemona (Yana Georgieva), is fully overwhelmed by her new experiences – a long night with multiple men from the garrison. The goal of marriage has been fulfilled, but the desire had outlived it and overcome the conditionality of the marital canon.
The world is revealed through the sexual experience and the liberty to submit to it. Emilia, her maid (Maria Manolova), is her very opposite – she is frantically subdued to the husband and religious authorities. Emilia washes the dirty underwear, fakes the marital bed sheet of Desdemona with bird’s blood, thus linking her mistress to the established marital relations between a man and a woman in which the desire for power and domination mostly resides. Desdemona’s close friend, Bianca the bawd (Vyara Nacheva) has mastered sexual relationships to the level of business etiquette, according to which everything happens now without a sentiment, blind to the complexities of upbringing, and open.
The artistic achievement of the play is in binding these three different characters in a relationship and their liberation from the established cliches of theatrical interpretations and classical dramaturgy. The actresses Yana Georgieva, Maria Manolova and Vyara Nacheva, manage to bind their performances to the innate female energies they hold. The start of the performance is dynamic and abrupt – noisy, almost hysterical. Desdemona is looking for her little engagement handkerchief, given to her by Othello as a gift. Amongst the piles of white laundry, the handkerchief, the reason for the jealousy and murder, seems like an absurd detail. In Vogel’s play, and in the performance, the murder is a premonition, a moment in which silence is going to invade the stage amongst desire and passion, it is the unexpected ultimate end, the last element of female fulfillment. These double edges in the director’s decisions are curious, not only about the actresses but also about the ending. On the one hand, the director has linked his decisions to the main accents in the play, and on the other hand, he has developed and liberated them from canon. Since the main motif of the play, and of emancipation as well, is the revolt against the established rules. This in a sense serves as the link to the classical tragedy, known to the audience, there the main characters carry the responsibility to abide by the decisions of fate, but they are ready at the same time to burn in their intention to oppose them. This is what also happens to Paula Vogel’s Desdemona. The peculiar fire starts first in the imagination of the main character and runs through her body and sex in order to reach the manifestation of liberty of personal choice as a metathesis of the whole performance.
It is important here to outline the critical role of the stage at Stefan Kirev Drama Theatre of Sliven, to set free from the compulsory repertoire steps addressed to the audience, so difficult to realize in theatres outside the capital. Desdemona is full of contradictions with the educational theatrical reception canon; it is even scandalous with the topics about careless sex, marriage and domestic violence and the refusal to be an exemplary wife according to the popular cliché. I consider this management gesture important and serious, especially when in this particular theatre starts the stage life of Galin Stoev’s Miss Julie, which ruins the theatrical expectations for a play at the beginning of the 90s at home and carries artistic contribution then.
Desdemona by Paula Vogel in the performance of Petar Denchev should be read also in the contexts of liberating for each outside of the capital theatre’s home repertoire traps, and to be watched and thought of as a gesture against the developing and, to a greater extent, politically bound respect towards national classical works in our dramaturgy.
Desdemona by Paula Vogel, translated by Haralampi Anichkin
Director: Petar Denchev
Scenography and costumes: Petar Mitev
Music: Hristo Namliev
Cast: Vyara Nacheva, Maria Manolova, Yana Georgieva
Stefan Kirov Drama Theatre of Sliven
Premiere: 13th September 2022, Slavi Shkarov chamber stage