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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The play will always be the thing

QTC’s recent celebrated production of The Scottish Play represented the company’s highest selling production in over a decade. Whether this be due to its pre-sale publicity, positive reviews and word of mouth or school group appeal, it also serves as evidence of the Bard’s enduring relevance and appeal. 450 years on from his birth, Shakespeare’s understanding of the complexities of the human mind continues to engage on stage and beyond. For even in everyday life, it is obvious that, like, love, Shakespeare is all around with timeless themes that transcend generations and class.

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In watching “House of Cards”, the acclaimed American political drama television series, I cannot help but think of its parallels to Shakespearean tragedy. Without spoilers, there are clear elements of “Othello” evidenced in its narrative. Indeed, as protagonist Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey is an agreeable, almost likeable villain, much like Shakespeare’s Iago, but with shades of a Macethian desire for power. And as his wife Claire, Robin Wright gives a chilling Lady Macbethish performance in all of her cunning quest for power. Even Spacey’s breaking of the fourth wall parallels Richard III’s malicious asides (a similarity which is particularly resonate after having seen Spacey in the role of “Richard III” on stage at the Old Vic in London).

The young adult novel (and soon to be released movie) “The Fault In Our Stars”, too, is packed with literary references including in its title, a quote from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” when the nobleman Cassius says to Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings”. The reference of crossed stars also alludes to the familiar prologue of “Romeo and Juliet” and is carried through to author John Green’s enigmatic final line, as symbolic nod to the typical Shakespeare conclusion.

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All roads, it appears, lead to the Bard. That his work and its vast meaning continue to be re-invented so many years on, is proof  that his  greatness may be that he changed what it means to be great. And as for the question of authorship, Shakespeare’s identity is much less interesting than his plays. The plays are what count and hopefully 450 years on from now, they will have outlived the debate.

What you know, you know

Otello (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

October 24 – November 2

Celebrating the bicentenary of Guiesspi Verdi’s birth, Chief Conductor of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Johannes Fritzsch, presents his Opera Queensland theatre debut in the form of a brave new production of “Otello” based on one of Shakespeare’s most intense tragedies.

And bold it is, in terms of its modern-day context and setting, on an aircraft carrier, amidst projected images of warfare, depicting scenes from recent military conflicts. This adds interest, almost to the point of distraction; the sleek lines and harsh lighting of what is essentially a generic military setting may be authentic, but they juxtapose the grittiness of its psychological story.

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Verdi is a towering figure in the operatic world. Of his three operatic versions of Shakespeare’s plays, it is often claimed that it is “Otello” that possesses the greatest potential to eclipse its original, such is its power. Indeed, any presentation of this seminal work is therefore going to be challenging, especially as the three leading roles of Othello, Iago and Desdemona are among opera’s most demanding, both vocally and dramatically.

Unfortunately, dramatically, Frank Porretta’s Moor is definitely less. The role of Otello is emotionally intense, as it has to include the ability to portray the Cypriot’s decline from proud, noble military hero to insecure, jealous obsessive at the hands of Iago’s motiveless malignancy. And Porretta’s lack of dramatic depth detracts significantly from the storytelling. As the demure Desdemona, Otello’s unjustly accused wife, Cherly Barker provides a vocal highlight; although a softer, more girlish tone would better convey the character’s essential ethereality and fragility after Otello’s public humiliation of her. However, Douglas McNicol is a fine Iago, compelling in his villainous characterisation.

The Opera Queensland Chorus dominates, as was the case with 2012’s “Macbeth In Concert”, reveling in the magnificence of the work’s monumental choruses. The real highlight, however, is Verdi’s score, beautifully interpreted by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, especially in the strings and brass sections.

Though the magic is lacking from the “Otello” web, much promise awaits in Opera Queensland’s 2014 season, particularly “La Boheme” and “The Perfect American”.