Othello (Queensland Theatre)
Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre
September 10 – October 1
“Othello” has long been one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays given its question of beliefs around race and gender as part of its poignant commentary on the universality of the human condition. But with its challenges comes great potential, and it is a potential well and truly realised in Queensland Theatre’s outstanding production of the classic as part of the 2022 Brisbane Festival program. The company’s first production of the tragedy (which premiered in Cairns in 2021 after the COVID- cancellation of its intended 2020 Brisbane season) is an electric adaption that approaches the Shakespearean story from a uniquely-Queensland perspective, as Jimi Bani and Jason Klarwein inject some Australian and Torres Strait Islander culture in a powerful tri-lingual (Kala Lagaw Ya, Yumpla Tok and English) tapestry together of the two great storytelling traditions of Shakespeare and Wagadagam.
The complex work follows Othello (Jimi Bani), a Moorish army general who controversially marries Desdemona (Emily Burton), the white daughter of the Senator Brabantio (in this case a wealthy cane farmer played by Eugene Gilfedder) and how his mind is poisoned to the green-eye monster of jealousy over a fictitious affair between his wife and squadron leader Cassio (Benjin Maza), suggested by his manipulative and vengeful ensign Iago (Andrew Buchanan), who is angered by the fact that Othello has promoted Cassio before him. Rather than Renaissance Venice and Cyprus, this “Othello” is set between 1942 Cairns and the Torres Strait Islands in tribute to the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion and the 800 Torres Strait Islander men (including Jimi Bani’s great grandfather, the late Ephraim Bani Snr, and his grandfather, the late Solomon Gela) volunteered to protect the northern tip of Australia during World War II.
The assured storytelling that ensures from this pioneering approach makes the play accessible to all audience members, with Klarwein’s detailed direction positioning the audience to be immediately engaged in its narrative. The classic tale of jealousy, betrayal and revenge is an ultimately brutal story including blatant racism and scenes of domestic violence, yet Klarwein finds comedy in aspects of its telling, particularly in its early scenes as actor gestures and reactions not only bring Shakespeare’s words to life, but enrich them with emphasis of intended and incidental meanings. Iago’s use of mocking language when meeting his wife and Desdemona’s confidant Emelia (Sarah Ogden), not only tells us much their relationship from a gender politics perspective, but gives the audience some easy humour to which it can respond.
While some of the play’s beautiful, eloquent language is given over to levity, such as Othello’s declaration that he will not be destroyed by jealousy “for she had eyes and chose me”, there are still a number of lovely moments in this retelling, thanks to the play’s creatives. Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesorieri’s costume design establishes Desdemona’s purity and innocence and Brady Watkin’s composition and sound design works with Richard Roberts’ set design to create some stunning imagery, such as when the sheer white curtains of the initially humble staging are moved aside to reveal a pool of water that becomes an integral part of scenes such as Othello’s physical response to Iago’s vivid descriptions of Desdemona’s alleged sexual infidelity. Ben Hughes’ lighting design, meanwhile, notably darkens things into the petty villain Iago’s soliloquy revelation of motiveless malignancy, drawing the audience into the character’s outline of his intention to be evened with the allegedly lusty Othello, ‘wife for wife’.
Buchanan is brilliant as the Machiavellian Iago who drives the plot of the play. He not only regales in conveyance of the villain’s duplicitous nature, but he illustrates the intriguing character’s essential chameleon-ness as he adapts his manner and style of speaking to suit the differing circumstances of audience and purpose, using language to both manipulate others and disguise his true intentions while planting the seeds that grow into Othello’s paranoia. Whether bitterly brooding the emotionally-charged idea that Othello hath leaped into his
seat bed and seduced Emilia abroad, alleging loyalty to Othello in assurance of his honesty and reluctance to implicate Desdemona and Cassio, or feigning friendship in counsel to Cassio to seek Desdemona’s help in getting reinstated after dismissal for fighting when drunk on duty, he is marvellous in show of Iago’s multi-faceted manipulations.
Bani, meanwhile, appropriately conveys Othello’s central humanity, which is essential to the play. The titular tragic hero is a meaty physical and emotional role and he fills it with both initial, purposeful authority and the passion of love’s hyperbolic extremes. He easily takes us on journey from powerful and respected Captain of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion through the torment of ‘knowing’ (rather than not) of Desdemona’s disloyalty to dignified but vulnerable comprehension of what he has done. His ‘put out the light’ soliloquy rationalisation of trying to save other men from Desdemona’s supposed infidelity is delivered to an absolutely silent, captivated audience and his final plea to ‘speak of me as… one who loved not wisely but too well,’ is a commanding elevation of one of the play’s most poignant moments.
Buchanan and Bani are as supported by a strong cast of players. Burton is the best she’s ever been as Desdemona. Not only is she passionate in the character’s love for Othello, which assures but also unnerves her husband in water of the seeds of his suspicion, but she strikes the delicate balance required to make the character dutiful, but also of some strength. Ogden is also praiseworthy as her worldlier friend and confidante, Emilia. Together, the duo credibly portrays a genuine friendship with their conversation in Desdemona’s preparation for bed highlighting their shared qualities more than their differences. And Maza’s Cassio is an audience favourite thanks to his cheeky more than courtly demeanour, especially in drunken assurance that he can stand and speak well enough.
Masterful handling of the story’s tragic twists and turns make experience of this “Othello” seem like less that its 2 hours 40-minute running time (including interval). Its weave together of Kala Lagaw Ya (one of the language of the Torres Strait), Youmpla Tok (Torres Strait Creole) and Shakespearean English is seamless. Meaning is never lost in transitions as each language is used to distinct effect, for example when flirty exchanges occur between Cassio and Bianca (Tia-Shonte Southwood) to both add some tonal levity and setup the scenario of Desdemona’s symbolic love token appearing in Cassio’s hands as the ocular proof evidence (in this case a gift from elders to Othello’s mother) of her supposed betrayal.
While its still-startling conclusion has been changed slightly, this “Othello” shows how many of the story’s themes around gender, difference, jealousy, ambition and love are still relevant today. And the reactions of those audience members new to the story serve as testament to the power of its retelling. It may have taken 52 years for the tale of Shakespeare’s Moor to make its way to the Queensland Theatre stage, but with a resounding opening night standing ovation through four curtain calls, it is clear that it has definitely been worth the wait.
Photos c/o – Brett Boardman