What are we to make of the fact that this production of Othello by the State Theatre Company of SA had the opening night audience laughing and, indeed, gleefully applauding even before the first line of dialogue was spoken? The great critic A. C. Bradley reckoned the play to be not only superior in construction to Hamlet, Macbeth or King Lear but also ‘the most painfully exciting and the most terrible’ of all Shakespeare’s tragedies. That this production, the main stage debut of director Nescha Jelk, opens with the Las Vegas-style wedding of Othello and Desdemona, avec disco soundtrack and mirror ball lighting, immediately suggests that we are not in Kansas or, to be precise, Venice anymore.
It turns out that we’re in the desert, nowhere near a shoreline (or a chapel of love?), the background conflict aesthetically closer to the successive Middle Eastern theatres of war of our own era than the Ottoman-Venetian conflict of 1570 that informed Shakespeare’s location of the play’s events. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What about that laughter?
Tonally, this production feels like an extension of The Comedy of Errors, the 2013 State Theatre/Bell Shakespeare coproduction that, under Imara Savage’s campy, irreverent direction, succeeded in revitalising one of Shakespeare’s slightest works. In that production Hazem Shammas and Renato Musolino played the Dromio twins to brilliant, knockabout effect; here they portray, respectively, Othello and Iago, a double act cut from an altogether darker cloth.
Neither appears comfortable with the transition from The Comedy of Errors’ slapstick and wordplay to Othello’s swingeing cruelties. Jelk seems to sense this. She tempers the hard surfaces on which their performances ought to stand with a cushion of casually forced humour that undermines the suspense which rightly should not let up until Othello’s suicide.
Musolino looks, to be frank, out of his depth as perhaps Shakespeare’s most egregious and existential of villains, and Shammas, though mesmerising in his two last speeches, tends towards vocal monotony. His tracing of Othello’s fall from ‘noble Moor’ to persecutor and, finally, misogynistic sadist, feels somehow incomplete. To be fair to Shammas, how could it be otherwise when our first sight of him is not as a potent and dignified general but as an entirely mortal man flailing about on a dance floor?
The real problem, however, is the faintly radical reinterpretation of Desdemona. The part is played by Ashton Malcolm — not as the familiar burnished innocent of past productions but as a shock-haired, vodka-swilling everywoman. Directorially the move is bold but dramaturgically it is a failure because it leaves the audience, again, with too little to fret about.
Malcolm’s rough edges, in other words, make the part wholly contemporary but at the cost of our sympathy, a misstep that ends up meaning we care much less about Desdemona’s awful fate than we should. Malcolm’s performance is often excellent once Othello has spurned Desdemona but that only adds to the disappointment. There’s a sense that a great opportunity has been missed. It’s hard to escape the feeling that Jelk did not have sufficient faith in the audience (or Malcolm’s ability to play within the text) to perceive, Desdemona’s underlying strength of will.
There is little to fault in Victoria Lamb’s minimalist design, a sand box within a black box, or Geoff Cobham’s typically skilful lighting with its militaristic touches of a mobile light tower and, neatly, a green night vision effect (‘beware of jealousy, my lord! It’s a green-eyed monster that makes fun of the victims it devours’) that attends the scene in which Iago and Rodorigo (James Smith) attack and wound Cassio (Taylor Wiese). Jason Sweeney’s score is a suitable blend of ambient dread, martial rhythms and muscular power chords.
In the end, however, too little is achieved, and too late; Jelk’s frequent letting of the audience off the hook with flashes of broad comedy has taken its toll and the tragedy of Othello, thinned by cheap laughs, is reduced, in its finale, to a mere drama. Lodovico’s epilogue has been cut and the play concludes with the gunshot with which the Moor ends his own life. The effect is numbing rather than purifying and I am reminded of Aristotle’s observation in his Poetics that tragedy should ‘arouse pity and fear, whereby is accomplished a catharsis of these emotions.’ The stakes have been set so low in this production, and from so early on, that it is impossible to feel anything but underwhelmed as the audience ends the night as it began it — with raucous, misplaced applause.