Review: Othello (Bell Shakespeare)

bellshakespeareVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 25 – Dec 4, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Ray Chong Nee, Joanna Downing, Alice Keohavong, Edmund Lembke-Hogan, James Lugton, Huw McKinnon, Elizabeth Nabben, Yalin Ozucelik, Michael Wahr
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
As the saying goes, “well behaved women seldom make history”. Desdemona and Emilia are slaughtered by their respective husbands after displaying only wifely devotion, as well as prudent decorum to all and sundry in Othello. It is not a battle of the sexes in the play, for there is nothing that resembles a level playing field, but an examination of tyrannical brutality against women, and the treatment of women, in art and in society, as mere objects and possessions. Toxic masculinity is the villain, and it resides in every one of the play’s male characters. Jealousy and egotism are their driving force, and great drama certainly does ensue, along with observations on some of our ugliest traits as human beings.

It is a remarkably well-rehearsed production, with director Peter Evans’ innovative ideas keeping things fresh and relevant for contemporary audiences. Imagery is often beautifully manufactured; Evans’ efforts at adding visual resonance to Shakespeare’s text is admirable, especially noteworthy in Cassio’s “party scene”, involving strobe lights and levitating cask wine bladders. Lighting design by Paul Jackson is thoroughly adventurous, and relied upon heavily for scene transitions and atmospheric transformations, in the presence of a very minimal set, consisting little more than a big wheely table that is manoeuvred around the stage for a large portion of the show, breathtaking when effective, but unbelievably jarring when at its worst.

The cast is polished and energetic, but the show suffers from portrayals of very big emotions that are not necessarily persuasive. Ray Chong Nee is a stately and handsome Othello, perfect in his depiction of the character’s noble qualities, and enthralling as a romantic figure in the early sequences, but Othello’s descent into darker barbaric emotions is significantly less convincing. Bad guy Iago is powerfully performed by Yalin Ozucelik, charismatic and full of conviction, in a role that gives the plot its strongest propulsive vigour. Although slightly lacking in texture, the actor’s work remains captivating, with a delicious Machiavellianism that makes for excellent entertainment.

It is reported that one woman is killed by her partner every week in Australia. When the women are slain at the bitter end, our attention is drawn squarely onto the behaviour of the perpetrators. We begin to wonder if much has changed over the last four centuries, and are disturbed by the thought that the lowest of our nature continues to persist through aeons of civilisation. Shakespeare’s Othello, is a man’s story for men. It is a tragedy with logic and consequences, where a black man is used, in a highly prejudiced manner, to demonstrate that primordial impulses can lead to catastrophe. Our salvation can lie only in the understanding of our destructive nature, and in every effort to restrain and reshape those instincts. If we choose to improve, life becomes better, but where we take the cowardly alternative, there can only be loss.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au