An awkward production of a rarely performed classic is still a play worth seeing
Shakespeare’s Othello is shamefully under-performed in this country. It’s a brilliant distillation of several of the bard’s central preoccupations: the feverish irrationality of sexual jealousy; the dangerous, and ultimately self-defeating, inequality of the sexes; the malignant power of hatred. Lean, savage and unrelenting, it plays out as a meticulously planned but monstrous descent into primitivism and murder.
Peter Evans’ production for Bell Shakespeare is decidedly contemporary in its aesthetic, with military uniforms that suggest Iraq or Syria, for example. Its interpretive thrust is also modern; the sense of the play as a nasty domestic drama, with all the misogyny and violence that implies, impregnates everything. The pace, the focus and momentum are hard to fault. It’s a pity, then, that so much misfires.
Othello (Ray Chong Nee) is a character, much like The Merchant of Venice's Shylock, who exists outside the dominant world of his play. Unlike Shylock, he has no fellow tribesmen to consult or grieve with. Othello only has Desdemona (Elizabeth Nabben), his wife and his life, and Iago (Yalin Ozucelik), his best mate and his ruin.
When Othello overlooks his friend for promotion in favour of Michael Cassio (Michael Wahr), Iago goes to work on his revenge. Enlisting the aid of the dupe Roderigo (Edmund Lembke-Hogan), he concocts an elaborate scheme to convince Othello that his wife is unfaithful. The dazzling manipulations of Iago – the ultimate puppet master, writer and director of all the action on stage – provide the horror. It is Othello’s own fractured sense of self, however, that provides the impetus to tragedy.
Chong Nee is a strong and emergent actor, and there are moments in this performance that genuinely thrill. His relationship with Desdemona is highly charged and erotic, his formal dignity grounded in gravitas but also capable of winning generosity, and his corporeal power undeniable. Once the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy takes hold, however, his performance tilts disastrously into the gestural and overblown. It’s as if he’s trying to physically manifest the emotions, rather than let them pour through the poetry.
It’s not just him. Evans directs his actors to work the script, when it should be the script that works the actors. Ozucelik handles this approach best; his Iago is light on his feet, seething in his sexual disgust while subtly suggesting a latent homoeroticism. The twisty justifications of the role suit this declamatory style, and stack the play in his favour. Most of the other roles, Wahr’s Cassio and Nabben’s Desdemona included, suffer from the approach.
For a play that centres historically on the body of the actor playing Othello – given the role has been played until recently by a white man in blackface – it is disconcerting to see Chong Nee struggle in such a physical way. Evans is clearly channelling Steven Berkoff, whose production of Coriolanus he worked on back in 1996, but the result is largely desultory. The scene where Othello overhears and misreads Cassio’s sexual braggadocio, the actor encouraged to mime a ludicrous simulacrum of impotent rage, is painfully representative of a director out of his depth.
The design (Michael Hankin) is unfathomable. An open, featureless space framed by pillars, it is carpeted with a sickly dark green velour, and contains a table that the actors inexplicably move about, as if passing the time. It is hideous, suggesting nothing more than a tacky convention centre foyer minus the poorly-serviced buffet. It works brilliantly in a single scene, where soldiers get drunk in a utilitarian room to the accompaniment of appalling music. Otherwise, it diminishes and depresses the entire play.
Shakespeare’s great tragedies almost always fail to satisfy on stage; any production is bound to come up short. That this particularly disappointing production of Othello still manages to thrill and delight, to horrify and move, is surely testament to the greatest playwright who ever lived.
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