The other night, I had the pleasure of attending the 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello at the Canberra Theatre Centre. I love my Shakespeare but had not had the chance to learn anything about Othello and so went in cold. I am so glad I did because without spoilers this play was able to grip me in the by-turns delighted, shocked and horrified way the Red Wedding episode in Game of Thrones did for viewers who had not read the book. By the end, I was sitting with my mouth open, unable to tear my gaze away. I half expected to hear the Rains of Castamere play as the curtain closed on the final act.
Spoilers for the rest of the play – don’t go further if you want to go in fresh.
Othello is brutal and its themes go deep into the nature of misogyny and racism, with expectedly sad and tragic consequences. Its subject matter makes it a timely piece and I would have to say that because of this, it resonated far more powerfully than many other Shakespeare plays I’ve seen to date. There are conversations between characters (e.g. the discourse between Desdemona and Amelia regarding the commonalities in the nature of men and women) that would not be out of place in modern forums. The ultimate death of Desdemona, Othello’s wife, as the seemingly “inevitable result of Othello’s jealousy” rings true in so many discussions around domestic violence. It’s visceral and shocking stuff. And, to use a film term, there is no cut to black in this production – you will watch a female character fight for her life, you will see her overpowered and murdered in a scene that seems to go on forever and you might, as I did, find yourself thinking of all those behind-closed-doors tragedies you’ve seen on the news. The decision “to show” is a bold choice for director Peter Evans and it is an important one, in my opinion (be warned, however, that it may hit too close to the bone for some and thus it could be triggering).
As far as the performance itself, I found the acting and choreography top notch. I’ve read other reviews saying that this version missed elements like a clear definition of setting, clear indication of the military ranks of the main characters, that it was either over or underacted and that it belaboured the use of the “honest Iago” refrain (which is not in the play, apparently) and these things could well be the case for connoisseurs who have seen several versions of the play and know it inside and out. As someone who went in cold, however, it hit me intellectually and emotionally and, thus, I felt it delivered.
All of the actors did an amazing job. Othello is played by Ray Nee Chong, who superbly takes his character from loving, rational and soft-spoken general and husband to a man rendered brutal and unhinged from envy. His monologue of how Othello wooed Desdemona is worth the price of admission alone. Yalin Ozucelik’s Iago is utterly mesmerising, all Petyr Baelish cunning and Machiavellian sneer and strategy, a snake charmer of a man, who is both snake and charmer. Desdemona suffers a little from not having as much stage time, which is a pity as the tragedy is ultimately hers, however Elizabeth Nabben imbues her with a third dimension and a gravity that centres this play and makes her death, when it comes, truly sad.
A couple of the scenes also bear mentioning:
Cassio’s drunken bender is amazingly played out – at one point all of the revellers pause while an empty goon-bag floats slowly out into space. For me, this was Cassio’s balloon rising and bursting, his reputation deserting him.
The haunting Willow song Elizabeth Nabben sings as Cassio and Roderigo clash makes this scene not only riveting, but seem to close in on itself as Iago’s duplicitous villainy bears its first bloody fruit.
The slow build-up of the bedroom scene that culminates in Desdemona’s death is masterfully done, the actors and setting combining to create a rising sense of dread. The set is a single sheet, draped over two lines to mimic, in three-dimensions, a marriage bed; a space that is bare and green (the colour of envy – Othello’s fatal flaw); and the stark brilliance of a single, rectangular light, like a cat’s pupil, creating both mood and exposure of the crime. The light draws the eye and, as an audience member, it is impossible to look away.
My impression of this scene. In retrospect, Othello might have been barefoot at this point.
In summary, Othello is a fine achievement and definitely worth checking out as it tours Australia. It is on in Canberra until the 22nd of October (I would totally love to see it again, but I am saving up for Richard III and Merchant of Venice in 2017).