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Photo by Daniel Boud

Bell Shakespeare presents, OTHELLO, by William Shakespeare, in the Playhouse, at the Sydney Opera House, 24 October – 4 December.

OTHELLO is a riveting play. A play concerning the plot of a man who outwardly seems a charming man – a flower external that has a serpent beneath. Of a man who has no conscience at all. A man who takes the witnessing audience into his confidence and shows us a duplicity so heinous, wicked and clever that we cannot look away. It is Iago and we step willingly onto the roller-coaster of his doings and as we do with the character of Richard III we are beguiled by his cruel skills. Maybe there is a vicarious admiration at the sheer boldness of it all? No-one but he and we can see the web of catastrophe he weaves around the others in the world of the play and he, a master conjuror, knows that we are helpless in our viewing, for we cannot stop the action even as he shows his sleights-of-hand with his victims. The play’s visceral hold is unique – a sado-masochistic fascination. The reason, the motivation of Iago for his deeds not the least of the fascination that enthrals us.

At the end of the play:

Othello: Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he has thus ensnared my soul and body?
Iago: Demand me nothing: what you know, you know;
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Fascinating frustration!

This play is not about lofty figures of kings and queens, this play’s tragedy is a domestic family one, and so, relatively, relatable to our own lives. It is hard for us to dismiss the fate of Othello as too preposterous, because it stems from sexual jealousy, an emotion that has touched a nerve in almost everyone of us and we suspect, know, if not from startling first-hand experiences then from closely witnessed second-hand ones, that it is a powerful propellant for outrageous behaviour that can lead to actions of tremendous extreme, to that of even murderous revenge. Shakespeare in this play presents a relentless mono-focus on this green-eyed jealousy, there is no relief from the main concern with subplot or comic character to divert us from its inevitable climax. We careen alongside Iago, our ‘host’, as his tricks ensnare the innocent and create a rising horror around him. The climax is terrible to watch.

This Bell Shakespeare company of players, under the Direction of Peter Evans, have been able to sustain the narrative cataclysm of this play. One can leave the theatre with a great admiration of the work, of the playwright, even if this production does not match its emotional potential. Mr Evans has constructed a solid production of straight-forward storytelling with some conceptual flourishes of staging, that bristles with determined discipline from all the actors – school audiences should be well pleased with this production. Clarity of story, character and language is available for the attentive. Set in a claustrophobic green velvet columned cavern, Design by Michael Hankin, enhanced in its growing malevolence by the lighting of Paul Jackson, nine actors in a nondescript but contemporary dress, with a slightly edited script, relate the drama with a competent ease. This showing in Sydney is the last of a 5 month tour.

Yalin Ozucelik, as Iago, is the driving force of this production. Clear, clean and focused with an ease and steady grasp of the unfolding machinations of his man, Mr Ozucelik makes a villain of Iago of cool precision. His textual intelligence is served vocally with wit and a nimble body response that speaks accurately the language to support what is going on. Action suiting word, word suiting action. It is the integrity of this actor’s choices and his brisk seemingly effortless contribution that is the spine of this production. What keeps it afloat.

Bell has chosen one of their Players, who has toured to schools, particularly, for them, Ray Chong Nee, as Othello. He has a physical presence and masculinity of some confidence (although, perhaps too young considering the information in the text – of his soldierly campaigns and of ‘an old black ram … tupping your white ewe”) and has a distinguishing sound in the delivery of his speeches that sets him aside from the others on the stage – a kind of deliberate enunciation with not much emotional colour – a soldier’s, a warrior-general’s sound of pragmatic control and separation. This Othello humanising, in the first half, only in the presence and especially when in physical contact with his Desdemona – it always seemed as he took her by the hand to lead her from the stage to ‘bed’, that he showed his ‘boyish’ delight of his fortunate chance of another kind of ‘life’. Of a romantic idealist with a trusting nature, with little knowledge of sin, placing all his faith in his Desdemona and so that when she falls in his eyes (he deceived by Iago), his entire world falls with her. Mr Nee’s characterisation serves the first half of the production well. Unfortunately, as Othello falls into an oblivion of jealous passion, when the heightened language of the writer demands an emotional identification and expression of deep tragedy, Mr Chong Nee, either through inexperience or lack of courage, or both, plays at demonstrating, indicating, the ‘journey’ that Othello is suffering rather than experiencing what is happening as explored in the language of Shakespeare. Failing to express it with the requisite belief that can give the audience the full cathartic tragedy of the man and the play, this production cooled in the second half and one was able to sit outside the happenings on the stage in an objective state – relatively, emotionally, disengaged. The impact of the treacherous machinations of Iago diminished by an Othello, tentative to embrace the demands of the writing and the wherewithal to own what he must do.

Elizabeth Nabben gives a well spoken and intelligent reading of Desdemona as a ‘good woman’ but has little of the firmness of purpose, the strength of courage that Shakespeare has given her textually – rebuffing her father’s rights, for instance – her sexuality relatively unexplored. Michael Wahr, as Cassio, mostly, fulfils the function of character, but not create one. Edmund Lempke-Hogan gives us a one dimensional wealthy village oaf as Roderigo – function but not arresting motivation. James Lugton in two small but vital roles as Brabantio and Lodovico does what he can to flesh out his men. While Alice Keohavong playing Bianca and other supporting ensemble drew some attention to her potential.

This Bell Shakespeare production cannot lift into the passionate poetics of the writing principally because of the unevenness of the casting in the production. They, generally, speak well, they have a sense of the story and language but show little interrogatory flair for the expression of the complexity of their characters. The characters lack the variety of human traits. The efficiency of the storytelling does not compensate for the lack of character motivation that a modern audience expects, or, the emotional poetics that the playwright demands.

It seems Mr Evans has the capacity of intellectualised conception and the skill of arrangement for staging but not the skill in casting. After the choice of play it is surely in the gift of the Director, his responsibility, to be able to choose the actors that can achieve the potential of the play and production. This is not evident here. With a reduced cast of nine for this play and some editing to accommodate that decision, this company of actors do not consistently demonstrate the skills to deliver the ‘goods’. Is it that a tour of 5 months prohibits a more open casting? That that time demand is the inhibition for Bell’s major showcase productions? This production should serve a need for school audiences to see and hear the text but as adult theatre this production fails to impress against comparison with the league of the leading international companies. One cannot help but recall the National Theatre Broadcast of the National Theatre production of Othello with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear (2013) to comprehend the glaring gap of achievement of this Bell Shakespeare. It is significant. Very significant.