Desdemona | Melbourne FestivalPhoto – Mark Allan

Shakespeare named Othello’s wife Desdemona, a Greek word meaning ‘misery’ or ‘ill-fated’ that would also conjure up demons in the minds of the audience. In this twenty-first century retelling of the famous tragedy, it is the doomed Desdemona, strangled by her black African husband for infidelities that she didn’t commit, who comes back from the grave to tell her story. This time, she is rising above her fate to redefine herself away from the rules made by men, challenging the name men gave her.

As soon as Tina Benko seizes the microphone to announce, ‘My name is Desdemona,’ she has us by the throat. She wrenches each syllable of the brilliant script out of her gut, in a voice that scales the heights and plumbs the depths of timbre and emotion, giving a voice not only to Desdemona, but to the mothers of Desdemona and Othello, and to Emilia (Iago’s wife). At times, Desdemona’s monologue breaks into dialogue, exploring relationships. When she confronts Othello, Benko plays both man and woman, and we watch the ill-starred lovers untangle their fates, to explore the love, the desire, the bloodlust and the jealousy that course through them.

Desdemona debuted in Vienna in 2011.Three major talents – Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning author Toni Morrison, Malian musician Rokia Traoré and innovative American director Peter Sellars – created this production, in which theatre and music take equal parts. Morrison probed the subtext of Shakespeare’s play to explore the motives and interior lives of the female characters. She collaborated with Traoré, who wove in versions of traditional Malian music, played onstage with two other female singers and two male instrumentalists on African lute and bridge harp. Traoré plays the role of Barbary, mentioned in Shakespeare’s play as Desdemona’s mother’s maid who sings to her mistress, but here, in the afterlife, in the pivotal role of Desdemona’s black confidante.

Traoré’s Barbary is Desdemona’s equal in dignity and self-possession, although her medium is not the spoken word, but the more traditional female one of song. As the lyrics are projected above the stage, her voice ranges freely through the registers to capture mood and meaning. The story moves evenly between spoken word and song. Desdemona’s words are taken up by Traoré, echoed and reflected, and given an emotional charge that comes from elsewhere, from the culture of ‘Barbary’ (North Africa) where Othello was born, but that Shakespeare knew so little about.

Every element in this production is exemplary, from the performers to the lighting, costume and stage design. The wide, open stage is lit with coloured strip lights above and below, suggesting a cavernous, womb-like enclosure, where the white-robed women cluster at candlelit floor altars to commune with the dead. Traoré, together with the delicate, nuanced harmonies of the other singers and the instrumentalists, creates a sense of ritual, of loss and longing, in counterpoint to Desdemona’s passion.

This collaborative project has brought out the universal themes of Shakespeare’s play – racial conflicts, antagonism between Muslims and Christians, political power-play, the emancipation of women – and shown their relevance to the world we live in, four hundred years later. Both intimate and confronting, it affirms life and love, without ignoring the depravity of human behaviour. A mesmerising experience.

2015 Melbourne Festival
Text Toni Morrison | Music & Lyrics Rokia Traoré

Peter Sellars

Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 16 – 19 October 2015
Times: Fri – Sun 8pm; Mon 6.30pm.
Tickets $25 – 119
Bookings: Southbank Theatre 03 8688 0800 | Ticketmaster 136 100

Sydney Festival
23 –25 October, Roslyn Packer Theatre

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