Saturday 26 October 2019

Othello - Theatre Review

What: Othello
When: 25 - 26 October 2019
Where: The MC Showroom
Written by: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Lenora Locatelli
Performed by: Paul Barry, Claire Duncan, Cadi MacInnes, Roisin O'Neill, Gabrielle Rando, Madeline Rintoul, Nic Stephens, Ismail Taylor-Kamara, and Jett Thomas
Sound by: Sheridan Killingback
Stage managed by: Mitch McDonough

Ismail Taylor-Kamara and Nic Stephens
Beating the Christmas rush, Dionysus Theatre kicks off the summer Shakespeare mania with the dark tale of envy, Othello. This production had a short season in their home on the Peninsula last weekend, and this weekend they have brought their work to The MC Showroom for the rest of us to engage with.

Othello is a late-mid career play by Shakespeare, coming a little after Hamlet and a little before Macbeth. As with so much of Shakespeare's work, he is merely remediating somebody else's story - Un Capitano Moro by Cinthio).

For me this is also probably one of his most coherently constructed works although it is also perhaps the most overtly racist. The outrageous and unapologetic racism is exactly why we shouldn't be staging this play anymore, but the excellent construction is why we should continue to study it as part of the craft and history of theatre making. Personally I don't think the craft outweighs the ideas when deciding to stage a play, but we are still stuck in an anglo-centric, white patriarchy so expect to see it again far too often in times to come as our social system struggles to maintain its supremacy.

Othello is really the story of Iago, a senior soldier in the Venetian army (yes, this is also Shakespeare's trademark cultural appropriation...). Iago hates Othello because 1. Othello is black, 2. Othello outranks him, 3. Othello promoted junior officer Cassio above him. Iago spends the rest of the play plotting and carrying out Othello's utter destruction and happily hurting and killing a lot of other people along the way just because he can. Each step of Iago's puzzle is immaculately placed in this play and as a work of plot construction it is awe inspiring.

In my opinion Othello is also one of Shakespeare's least sexist plays, but my comfort in that was destroyed upon reading Locatelli's (director) program notes. In them she asserts Iago is a woman. Why? Because 'A man would not be capable to orchestrate such a complex plan ...[for]... each character Iago is manipulating.' Thus we find ourselves right back in the middle of the Eve and the apple myth which has been used for centuries to oppress women. Only women are capable of vile acts of deception and betrayal and all the bad mojo of the world falls at our feet. Mea culpa.

The act of changing Iago's gender pronouns in the play ended up having little to no effect in terms of elucidating anything about the story or the character as it turns out (much like MTC's Queen Lear several years ago). Locatelli does not appear to have a vision which either supports or denies Iago as a woman although Shakespeare's dialogue does resist this interpretation, and Stephens was so far outside her acting capabilities at this stage of her career she was unable to imbue the character with anything one might identify as feminine beyond her physical female body.

The truth is, this production of Othello is little more than an off-book staged reading of the play. The actors stand when it is their turn to speak and they sit on the sidelines when they are not in the scene. I was actually quite excited with the possibilities when I walked into the the theatre and saw the set - a series of different sized black boxes randomly set around the stage and a huge red ribbon draped across the floor. The potential was boundless in a play which has so many depths of human character and emotion to be embodied.

Locatelli does have some strong and striking ideas but is not yet at a point where she can incorporate them into the main action of the play. Instead there are random vignettes of great power involving terrifying masks, blinking torches, and marionettes but they are just little photo galleries strewn across the time line of the play at this point. I will say that act 2 was staged and realised much more strongly then act 1 and, if it weren't for Shakespeare's trademark cheesy death scenes, would have been a powerful finish for an otherwise quite tedious night.

Having said all of this, there are some amazing actors in the cast who have instincts which allow us to imagine a production beyond the scope of this director. O'Neill's Rodrigo was passionate, Barry's Cassio was full of energy and eagerness, and Duncan's Montano was cannonball of energy.

I found myself wishing any of these three had been cast as Iago because their connection to their body would have meant we could have traveled the journey of deception the play takes us on. Stephens does all her acting in her head, with her body as stiff as a board. It begged the question who is the puppet - Othello or Iago?

The rest of the cast did a fine job although there was way to much looking down at the floor. Taylor-Kamara's Othello has great moments of strength and power, but he does slide into unperformativeness when his character softens and for some reason Locatelli had him upstaged for pretty much all of act 1.

As much as I don't believe this play should be staged anymore, it is not a play for beginners. There is so much going on: the racism, the workplace politics, the family dramas, the drunkeness, the domestic abuse, the ambition. It is a dramaturgical feast but, as with eating, a director's eyes can be bigger than their belly and such is the case with this production of Othello.

2 Stars

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