Moor makeover

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

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”.