Bell’s brutal best

Othello (Bell Shakespeare)

The Arts Centre Gold Coast

October 11

There are few companies in Australia that bring us the Bard as well as Bell Shakespeare, proven in not only fidelity to text but their highlight of the works’ ongoing thematic relevance. And, accordingly, the company’s “Othello” is a compelling production sure to affect audience members to their core in reflection of its examination of the complex contradictory nature of humanity.

othello and iago.jpg

The brutal story is of Othello (Ray Chon Nee), stranger to the world of Renaissance Venice who, despite his Moorish origins, stoically commands career success and marriage to a woman half his age before being betrayed by his ensign Iago (Yalin Ozucelik) to be used as pawn in manipulation to murder his own wife Desdemona (Elizabeth Nabben) in response to a fictitious affair between her and squadron leader Cassio (Michael Wahr). In the company’s hands, the pace of the epic tragedy blisters along during Act One as Iago adds justification to (deluded) self-justification of why he is intent on enacting his plot to destroy Othello, at first claiming jealousy over recently-promoted rival Cassio’s lack of battle experience and then soliloquising as to his suspicion regarding his wife Emilia’s supposed infidelity with Othello (and Cassio).

wife for wife.jpg

Lighting works well to enrich the play’s mood, starting in the shadows outside Senator Brabantio’s house as the cynical, destructive Iago uses nobleman Rodergio (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) to cause an outcry by shouting that Desdemona has deceived her father in eloping with Othello and continuing in murky green shades as the petty-minded villain progressively outlines his plan to be evened with The Moor, ‘wife for wife’. Costumes also work to convey character and theme; in contrast to the structured military dress of others, Desdemona’s clothing is softer as it floats innocently around her.

Staging is simple yet impressive in its versatility with a single rectangular table on wheels being used to provide the elevated platform of the balcony from which Brabantio calls to the duo underneath and later table upon which maps are examined in plan for General Othello’s lead of the Venetian army to war when news arrives that the Turks are soon to invade Cyprus. Yet, strangely, the handkerchief that provides Othello with the required ‘ocular proof’ that convinces him to kill Desdemona is far from the spotted with strawberries napkin expressly described in the dialogue.


There are no weak links in the stellar cast. Elizabeth Nabeen and Joanna Downing create contrasting but complete female characters, Nabeen as the demure but more-modern and worldly than usual, Desdemona, in contrast to Iago’s wilful wife Emilia, ultimately loyal to her mistress upon disbelieving realisation that her husband has orchestrated events leading to Othello’s murder of Desdemona. Lugton is a convincing Roderigo, bringing an appealing humour to the essentially meek and easily-manipulated character and Wahr is impressively emotive as Cassio, especially in lament of the loss of his reputation upon forfeiture of his lieutenancy for succumbing to the devilish ‘invisible spirit of wine’ on duty.


Ozucelik is an engaging Iago, everyman in his manipulations in belie of his cunning duplicity. And his ultimate lack of remorse is chilling. The play belongs, however, to its titular Moor of Venice and Chong Nee is gripping in his portrayal. In unapologetic and sincere account of how his relationship with Desdemona is respectful and mutual, his performance is quite exquisite as he massages the words of his monologue for the emotional extremities of their enunciation. And when he transfers his internal emotion upon comprehension of what he has done into plea to ‘speak of me as… one who loved not wisely but too well,’ it is one of the play’s most poignant moments, such is the dignity and vulnerability of his portrayal.

war room.jpg

Act Two is filled with drama thanks to the speed and aggression of Othello’s corruption to obsessive ‘green-eyed-monster’ and the resulting expose of the power play of possessiveness within the two marriages. Indeed, under the direction of Bell Shakespeare’s Artistic Director Peter Evans, the play’s violent exploration of the thin line that separates love and jealousy, provides confronting comment on the irrationality of domestic violence. And, complicit to his lies, the audible audience reactions to Iago’s chameleon behaviour when with Othello, frequent mention of the word honest as descriptor of his character and hatefully racist descriptors of the Moor, prove the resonance of the work. … as should be the case when it comes to one of Shakespeare’s best tragedies.

All hail Henry

Henry V (Bell Shakespeare)

Mackay Entertainment Centre

October 1

“… may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?” the chorus asks in the prologue of “Henry V”. Although it may not be the wooden O of the Globe Theatre, when it comes to Bell Shakespeare’s production, the answer is most definitely yes.

The show is set in a school bomb shelter in 1940s London, where students are huddled, being given lessons in Shakespeare to distract from the Blitz outside. With initial mention of others from the hollow crown of history plays, “Richard II” and “Henry IV”, school teacher (Kieth Agius) serves as the chorus and ensures some context for the story to follow so that when he then distributes copies of “Henry V”, the students embrace its recitation with gusto.

It is a busy set, with its 10 person ensemble and an endless supply of school-room items to be inventively reinterpreted as play props.  Bookshelves become beds, boats and benches in a French tavern, in some precise and inventive staging. Lighting is equally impressive, largely naturalistic yet cozy to give comfort to the claustrophobic surrounds. And within the ‘little room confining mighty men’, there is some lovely movement around the stage as the ensemble works together to create wonderful stage pictures, giving a tableaux feel that only adds to the memorable aesthetics.

Henry V

To have most cast members assuming multiple roles adds a clear energy. Only a football-ready Michael Sheasby, who plays King Henry, keeps with the one role for the duration of the show. And he creates a sincere and honest Henry, more likeable than gallant, focussing on comradery rather than bravery or patriarchy in his memorable Band of Brothers Battle of Agincourt speech. The stylised, percussion-backed battle of Agincourt, when Henry leads his English into memorable David and Goliath victory against the French, is a definite highlight which drives the piece forward, however, overall, the work seems to shy away any real examination of the brutality of war. Rather, there is a great deal of levity, with Bard bawdiness, sexual suggestions and two very funny scenes in which French princess Katharine (Eloise Winestock), affianced to Henry in a political deal to help reconcile the two nations, attempts to learn English and then later when she is haphazardly wooed by Henry, despite their limited familiarity with each other’s native language. This lightness ensures plenty of laughs but also increases the impact of the grave final sections of the play.

Bell Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is an epic show, but it is a joyous interpretation of an aggressively masculine play. Jumping between classroom characters and those within the play proper could generate a barrier to understanding to those not familiar with the Shakespearean text, but it also creates the production’s greatest interest in its showcasing of theatre’s power to transform. With its lively, novel take on the tale, this “Henry V” certainly succeeds in bringing one of the Bard’s most sombre plays to life.