Othello review (Fairfax Studio, Melbourne)

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Peter Evans directs an even production of Othello for Bell Shakespeare.

The set (Michael Hankin) is an even green carpet covering the floor and walls. The lighting (Paul Jackson) largely comes from an even spread of white lights above the playing space. The costumes (Hankin) are an even spread of shades of brown ­– except for Bianca, the “whore”, who is dressed in red: shockingly on the nose.

Evans directs performances that are even. For act one in particular, all the actors (with the exception of Yalin Ozucelik as Iago) give the same performance as each other. Their characters have the same personalities. They are kind. Steady. Straight-backed. Even-handed.

In act two, some of the performers are afforded a second note. But still, they play only one note at a time.

This Othello is even. There is no colour and shade. No peaks and troughs. No hidden depths. No untapped nuance. There are only Shakespeare’s words as if read directly off the page, plodding steadily, steadily forward. Evenly.

The words are clearly spoken. They are well-enunciated. They sit easily and comfortably with the actors’ Australian accents. The script is about as coherent as Shakespeare will ever be. They keep their voices even so every word can be heard.

This Othello is even. And so, it is dull.

Ozucelik, seemingly in another production, finds a personality for Iago. We’re not captivated by his Iago’s charms, nor particularly shaken by his schemes, but there is modulation within his performance and, in this, he is the only character who sparks any interest. Everything besides his monologues comes to feel superfluous.

Ray Chong Nee as Othello is uncharacteristically unenchanting. At the very top of the play, we see moments of the warmth and complexity we have come to expect from him as an actor, but these are soon subsumed by the kind, steady, straight-backed, even-handedness thrust on the collective cast. Towards the end of act one, when Iago convinces Othello his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful, the character shift happens within an instant: he is now sniffly and sad. He is no longer kind, no longer steady, no longer even-handed. His back stoops. Some of the other characters go through these instant shifts: they become less steady; less even-handed; their backs also stoop. One emotion is played at a time.

The plot is straightforward and easy to follow. There is little excitement to get confused in. If you want to understand Shakespeare’s structuring of Othello, this is probably your best bet. If you want to understand why we are performing Othello – or, indeed, Shakespeare – in 2016, this probably isn’t what you’re looking for.

Perhaps more so than any other Shakespeare, Othello has proven itself rich for contemporary re-contextualisation by directors and scholars alike. Viewed through the lens of the 21st Century, it is frequently produced through a prism or racial politics, or, most recently in Australia, of feminism. There are, undoubtedly, dozens of other contemporary facets that could be illuminated in the text.

The costumes, largely stylish modern interpretations of vintage clothing, emancipate the production from any specific time point and, in a month where we have seen a rise in votes for racist political parties in Australia and a week in which we saw a political commentator called “hysterical” on the ABC – only to subsequently receive even more gendered abuse – it is odd to see an Othello which so completely divorces itself from contemporary conversations.

Evans’ production exists purely in service of the text’s clarity, and the audience’s understanding of the story Shakespeare wrote. But we don’t go to the theatre for the clarity of Shakespeare: we go for his passion and for the ways his tragedies can still hit us like a punch-in-the-gut. And in a production that evenly, slowly paces itself on the journey towards the finish line, these emotions can’t be found at all.

Othello is at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne until July 23 then travels to Canberra and Sydney. Image: Ray Chong Nee (Othello) and Yalin Ozucelik (Iago) in Bell Shakespeare’s Othello. Photo: Daniel Boud.

3 responses to “Othello review (Fairfax Studio, Melbourne)

  1. I was glad to see the play unloaded of spurious political demands and directorial comment. Its nice to think that art can change people’s attitudes but Im afraid it doesn’t. Why I have to be reminded of truths that are obvious in these modern times as the mold into which Shakespeare must be wedged, I do not know. The case for so many social issues is very well demonstrated in much larger media than the theatre and is blithely and comprehensively ignored. Its so aggravating to see these issues brought up as a slanting of Shakespeare. The play is often ruined and nobody cares about the message. So why can’t I just watch and listen to Shakespeare?

    Credible innovations are possible. I did not think the recent R&J was one. Henry V was. Its tricky. And its ok to just do the play. BTW, I think Othello’s shift in temperament is quick. Very quick. And I think they got it right. My wife and I like this Othello though I grant you it was a bit mellow. The storm scene was just silly.

  2. I was disappointed by this production. Having seen Peter Evans’ Romeo and Juliet, I was expecting better. The fault was clearly in the direction, as I know that these actors can do better than this. It played like a worthy amateur production of the worst sort – all the words were there, in the correct order, but there was little feeling, passion or motivation. Where was the torment when Othello first considers the possibility that his beloved wife has been unfaithful? Instead of this subtlety we had a sudden flip from loving husband to angry, shouting, accusing, murderous husband. And a word for the director: it is possible to convey that an actor is angry and upset without having them shout all the time.

  3. A counterview to this review. The great thing about this production is that it honours the text. What detracts from it is that in places the lead loses his lines.

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