Shakespeare’s harrowing tale of passion, jealousy, and betrayal remains as riveting as it is difficult to watch. Four hundred years after the Bard’s death and every theatre company worth their salt are pulling out all the stops for this anniversary.
Bell Shakespeare holds fast as one of the premiere Australian Shakespearian companies, but their two most recent productions, Romeo & Juliet and now Othello, are lacking the creativity and imagination of past productions.
There is no doubting that Ray Chong Nee as the title character is a star, his commanding presence as the Moorish General is initially compelling but appears to fall into pantomime in some places in later acts. Othello’s speech on how he wooed Desdemona is the highlight of his performance, his voice and charm resonating throughout the Fairfax Studio in Melbourne.
The seriousness of the play is not fully developed as many of the characters are portrayed as comedic. Fore example, Yalin Ozucelik, the villainous Iago, whom instead of making the audience squirm uncomfortably with his plotting, trickery and deception, is played with a jovial joker-esque quality.
The passion between Othello and Desdemona (Elizabeth Nabben) is quite spectacular. The audience is drawn into their private world in a stunning example of connection between the two performers. Nabben remains consistent throughout. She both plays up the feminine role in her passion for Othello and in her girlish attempts to have Cassio (Michael Wahr) reinstated as lieutenant after his dishonorable discharge.
Nabben is a strong performer, and her transformation from object of desire to object of obsession is as relevant in 2016 as it was in the 15th century. That is where Othello is strongest; in it’s eerily pertinent exploration of misogyny and racism that only serves as a mirror into our modern lives.
There were gasps from the audience as the overt racism was exposed within the dialogue, and yet I heard worse on the train ride home that evening. Directed by Peter Evans, there were moments of brilliance on stage and also a few questionable choices – the goon bag and techno scene for example, that were a shock to the senses and jarring the audience from their suspended disbelief.
Moments of purity, honesty and integrity were embodied by Emilia, (Joanna Downing), whose innocence in this tale was the only real reprieve from the madness and destruction on stage. Her ultimate demise at the hand of her husband was truly distressing and showed Iago’s merciless nature at its most extreme.
There were parts of Bell Shakespeare’s Othello that were completely traumatic and entirely thrilling. However, a barren set design let them down, as did some interesting staging that lacked the originality and flair of previous productions.
Bell Shakespeare presents
by William Shakespeare
Director Peter Evans
Venue: Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 12 – 23 July 2016
Tickets: $35 – $90
Bookings: artscentremelbourne.com.au | 1300 182 183