Othello (Regan Taylor) is a black soldier who has risen in ranks to General of the Venetian army. The play opens with the news that he has married Desdemona (Jasmine Blackborow), daughter of Brabantino (Simon Prast), who promptly disowns her. Othello is sent off by the Duke (here played by a woman, Jacque Drew) to Cyprus to vanquish the Turks, and takes Desdemona with him. Iago (Haakon Smestad) is bitter at Othello’s having surpassed him in his military career and so plots to destroy his reason by convincing Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful to him with Michael Cassio (Daryl Green). A handkerchief Othello gave Desdemona is invested by him with all the symbolism of their marriage vows and this is later used against her when it falls into Iago’s hands via Emelia, Desdemona’s attendant and Iago’s wife (Roimata Fox).
This production, directed by Ben Naylor, opens with a group of musicians (various small drums, a cello and violin) on stage and a dancer, creating an exotic ambience which quickly gives way to a highly masculinised world military world featuring plenty of drinking and roistering. The production originates from New Zealand and elements of the play reference Maori culture – Othello shakes his hands in rage and despair, stamping in frustration; gestures instantly familiar to New Zealanders, reminiscent as they are of the haka (the Maori war dance which is also used to honour an individual or an occasion, as performed by some audience members on opening night of the Pop-up Globe here in Melbourne; a thrilling surprise). Taylor and Fox are both Maori and occasionally speak Te Reo Maori to each other, slipping in phrases between Shakespeare’s lines, a pleasingly rhythmical addition.
Othello‘s transition from loving affection to murderous rage is impressive and upsetting; Taylor has great range as an actor. Blackborow’s Desdemona is confident in her integrity and endearingly pragmatic in the face of Othello’s intensity and superstition; it’s painful to see her confusion and agony as her husband destroys their relationship.
Iago is usually portrayed as physically less imposing than Othello; the character is often presented as somewhat shriveled. Not this time; oh no. Iago drives the play and Smestad gives us an Iago whose impressive and graceful physicality is superbly matched by the cadence of his linguistic delivery: a positively musical and charismatic performance by an actor who owns the role (and very nearly the entire show.) The scene of his ultimate departure is spectacular. There’s a terrific contrast between Iago’s powerful presence and the importunate antics of Roderigo (Kieran Mortell).
The Pop-up Globe’s Othello enjoys elegant set design including a table of naval models in black and white. You get incense, big songs, lit torches, and as with all these Pop-up Globe productions the finale is a great foot-stamping celebration of performance. Don’t miss this, it’s as satisfyingly dramatic and spectacular a production of Othello as you’re likely to see.
Pop-up Globe Queen’s Company presents
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Ben Naylor
Venue: Pop-up Globe | Sidney Myer Music Bowl in the Kings Domain, Linlithgow Ave, Melbourne VIC
Dates: until 11 November 2017 (check the website for details)
Tickets: $304.67 – $20.33