The minute the performance started I was struck by the simplicity and starkness of Ralph Myers' design; a steely grey wall across the rear of the stage, a square raised platform centre stage, banks of lights visible on either side of the stage and another bank high in the ceiling.
Othello, a convert to Christianity and a black man, a Moor, has become a General in the Venetian army thanks to his gallantry and leadership. He has secretly wed Desdemona, the daughter of Brabantio a Venetian Senator and has made Cassio his Lieutenant in preference to Iago. Iago is ambitious and power-hungry, determined to wreak his revenge on Othello for having passed him over for promotion. He sets out to undermine Othello's position, stirring up racist fears and prejudices in Desdemona's father and doubts about her fidelity in her husband.
If Othello is to be seen as a tragic hero there must be a balance between he and Iago such that Othello is not seen merely as a rather naïve man who is too easily deceived. I have seen productions that gave too much weight to the role of Iago and not sufficient gravitas to Othello. The current production by the Bell Shakespeare Company manages to get the balance just about right.
Wayne Blair's Othello is a strong, passionate man, a man of action who can tell a good yarn; an honest, down to earth character who has earned his position of power and respect. In contrast Marcus Graham's Iago is a man who loves power for power's sake, a charming rogue who delights in playing mind games with all those around him; he deceives and manipulates people as if it were a sport and shows not a hint of remorse. Both performances are lively and engaging, highlighting the battle between truth and untruth, between perception and reality, that is central to the play. It was impossible not to be truly moved by Othello's final speech in which he pleads that others should
Nor set down aught in malice: then, must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well....
Whilst the female roles are slight in comparison, Leeanna Walsman makes a tender but determined Desdemona and Anni Finsterer's Emilia is strong and feisty. Ron Haddrick is compelling as the Duke of Venice and Chris Ryan is wonderful as the Clown and what a singing voice! Shakespeare's language, often so difficult for contemporary audiences is articulated beautifully, with the lead performers in particular having made it comfortably their own. When Roderigo is slow to comprehend Iago's suggestion that he 'remove' Cassio, Marcus Graham's Iago takes a minor licence with Shakespearean language saying instead of knocking out his brains he uses the more Australian bash his brains out.
Lighting and sound are really effective. The presence of musicians on stage (guitar, drums and voice) worked really well and I never realised that empty oil drums could be used so well to create atmosphere and facilitate scene changes. Under director Marion Potts' guiding hand the action of the play moves steadily and relentlessly forward, with one scene flowing smoothly into the next, plenty of humour and a rising tension towards the climax of the play.
Othello is a new addition to the Bell Shakespeare Company's repertoire and a welcome one. It proves yet again the essential humanity of Shakespeare's characters such that the themes and conflicts of Othello are as relevant today as they no doubt where when first written.
Bell Shakespeare presents
by William Shakespeare
Playhouse | The Arts Centre
Thursday 31 May – Saturday 16 June; matinees - Saturday 2, 9 & 16 June
Monday at 6.30pm, Tuesday – Saturday at 7.30pm; Saturday Matinees at 1.30pm
MEET Bell Shakespeare:
Tuesday 29 May, 6pm – 7.30pm
All Preview Tickets $35; Monday – Saturday Evenings Full Price $60, Conc $50, Groups (8 Or More) $50; Saturday Matinees Full Price $55, Conc $48, Optus Under 27 Tickets $30
1300 136 166
Also touring to Canberra, Orange and Sydney
Visit www.bellshakespeare.com.au for details