Review: Othello, Enlightenment ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Review: Othello, Enlightenment

Othello by William Shakespeare, directed by Marion Potts. Set design Ralph Myers, costumes by Brice McKinven, light design Nick Schlieper, composition and sound design Max Lyandvert and Stefan Gregory. With Bob Baines, Wayne Blair, Mitchell Butel, Anni Finsterer, Marcus Graham, Michael Habib, Ron Haddrick, Chris Ryan, Leeanna Walsman and Tom Wren. Bell Shakespeare @ Arts Centre Playhouse (closed), Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until July 28, Orange Civic Centre August 2-4.

by Shelagh Stephenson, directed by Julian Meyrick. Set design by Ralph Myers, costume design by Miranda Flynn, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composer Tim Dargaville. With Nicholas Bell, Caroline Brazier, Grant Cartwright, Beverly Dunn, Lewis Fiander and Sarah Pierse. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until July 21.

Othello has long seemed to me to be one of Shakespeare's potboilers, like The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew: an ultimately flawed play, rescued by passages of Bardic brilliance. And I swore a while back, after walking out of Romeo and Juliet, that I'd never bother with Bell Shakespeare again. So I can't say that I approached this production, which I saw late in the season, with high expectations.

It just goes to show that you should never trust your prejudices. I came out of the theatre glowing and silenced, wrenched by the extremities that only tragedy can invoke. I still think that Othello is flawed - that crucial scene in the third act where Othello is consumed by jealousy doesn't really bear heavy scrutiny. But only the stoniest heart could fail to quicken to this classic story of love and betrayal, of the Noble Moor who has transcended his own slavery, only to be undone by the hatreds projected onto his black skin.

Marion Potts has created a production which nakedly reveals the power of the play. Ralph Myers' set is Elizabethan in its simplicity. In the centre is a wooden platform, behind which stretches a concrete wall, of the kind that have become familiar in pictures of Baghdad. On each side of stage are racks on which are placed 44-gallon drums, and high above the wall, giving an air of threat, are banks of theatre lights. If they are not in the scenes, actors either leave the stage altogether or sit on a motley assortment of chairs to either side of the platform. They play the music live, using a variety of instruments: guitars, a mandolin, tambourines, the 44-gallon drums, even bottles.

While it's not as beautifully austere as Rex Cramphorn's Hamlet, which I saw in the same building longer ago than I care to remember, this production works on the same premise. It emphasises the play's theatricality, focusing attention on the actors and the text. I'd be churlish now to deny the power of the script; and there are some truly remarkable performances which explore the playfulness and emotional dynamic of Shakespeare's language. Potts' decision to perform the whole play, leaving in the Fool and musicians and other scenes that are usually cut, intensifies its theatrical power and complexity.

Crucial to this production, but in the most sub-textual and subtle of ways, is Wayne Blair's Aboriginality in the role of Othello. It changes the dynamic of the play, and sends subterranean echoes into present-day Australia. For centuries Othello was played in blackface - the white actor taking on the mask of blackness. This, as the critic Joseph Roach argues, served both to express and erase contemporary social fears about race and sexuality.

Certainly, the play's theme of miscegenation provoked powerful responses. Roach quotes the essayist Charles Lamb, who argued that the "revolting" appearance of a "coal black Moor" offering "wedded caresses" to "this Venetian lady of highest distinction" offered unanswerable evidence that Shakespeare's play ought to be read, but never staged. Speaking of Thomas Betterton's famous performance of Othello in the early 1700s, Roach comments: "Here is the doubleness of the actor's art, a black mask covering his white face, a European general's uniform covering his history as a slave.... In a world predicated on African slavery, the actor in blackface stands astride the theshold of social death. As death and its rituals offer occasions to mark and question boundaries... so miscegenation and its representation enact the fears of some that those boundaries will collapse."

Casting a black actor as Othello removes that level of irony and erasure, and at the same intensifies the expression of its anxieties. Othello, the enslaved child who grows up to be a great general in the Venetian army and who secretly marries the daughter of a Venetian Senator, presents his blackness without irony. When he speaks of his suffering (the same sufferings with which, ironically, he snares first Desdemona's attention and then her heart), or when Brabantio (Bob Baines) spits with repulsion and rage at the thought of having a black son-in-law, it can't but ripple up against the racism that still infects contemporary Australia.

I ought to emphasise that this is not in the least the kind of production that seeks to impose anachronistic homilies onto an unwilling text. Rather, Potts' direction permits the questions of race and gender that live in the play - and I was surprised, in fact, by how directly Shakespeare addresses both these issues - to resonate through the production with their proper, complex unease.

Blair's Aboriginality extends beyond the colour of his skin, informing his entire physical presence on stage: this Othello is not, like Olivier's, more noble than the nobles, whiter even than they are, but rather the assimilated Other, whose origins are evident in his every gesture. Blair speaks with a gravity and precision that expresses the care and containment of an outsider who must watch his every word and act, lest he transgress; and yet his stance, his movement, is inflected throughout the play with the tropes of Aboriginal dance. An echo merely, no more, woven into the performance as a texture, which informs it more deeply as the story darkens, as Othello begins to brutalise Desdemona (Leeanna Walsman) and to plot the murder of Cassio (Tom Wren), and which erupts in the final operatic scene, when Blair attains an authentic grandeur in his pride and despair.

He is well matched by Marcus Graham's Iago. I have not been a great fan of Graham, but this performance made me a convert: this is a remarkable Iago, charismatic and dangerously attractive, who woos the audience with his asides into uneasy complicity with his revenge upon Othello. Where Othello is contained, Iago is a core of dynamic energy, an evil clown whom we can't but unwillingly admire, a Mephistophilean seducer who winks to the audience, provoking our horrified laughter as he explains his jealousy and hatred of Othello, and boasts of his ruthless ingenuity at working the Moor's downfall and his own promotion.

When, at his most wicked, Iago pledges himself to "wronged Othello's service", his statement that "I am your own forever" is heart-stopping: not because it is a lie, but because we know it is the truth. By making Othello his victim, Iago has chained himself to Othello forever with his crime: but there is a deeper resonance. Iago is also Othello's other self, the voice that articulates the slanders that he has internalised, despite his pride, about his colour, and which confirms everything he fears. Othello is so eager to listen to Iago only because he already suspects, at some level, that what Iago says is true.

These two performances dominate the play, as they should: but there are many fine moments in this production. The heartbreaking scene where the doomed Desdemona dresses for bed with her maid (and Iago's wife) Amelia (Anni Finsterer) was one of those moments of theatre where the entire audience was spell-bound, utterly silent: not a cough, not a rustle, not a breath. In this scene, Desdemona's vulnerability and fatalism are shocking, as if she is already a ghost, and her pure voice singing the words of a dead woman shows the true power of pathos: not as melodrama, nor sentimentality, but as measure of the desperate human need for hope against the certainty of doom.

It is a powerful production, rather than a perfect one; earlier in the play, for example, Walsman's Desdemona seems to be caught in a strangely hieratic mode of speaking, which mitigates against the nuances of sexual passion she might otherwise express, and some other actors similarly waver in and out of focus. And, especially early in the play, I felt that the convention of the playing platform could have been more rigorously used to better effect; the staging of some scenes both on and off the platform dissipated the energy that such a convention can generate.

But it's fair to say that no one gives a weak performance. I especially enjoyed Ron Haddrick's brief but important cameo as the Duke of Venice, Chris Ryan's melancholy Clown, and Anni Finsterer's wickedly radical speech to Desdemona about letting "husbands know / Their wives have sense like them". If Bell Shakespeare continues to extend itself in this direction, placing its faith in the plays themselves rather than in superficial bells-and-whistles interpretations, it will be a deeply exciting development.

AFTER the heights and depths of Othello, it is perhaps a little unfair to turn to Shelagh Stephenson's domestic drama about grief, Enlightenment. And in truth, I find myself with not much to say about it. It's a perfectly competent play, written in the tradition of Alan Ayckbourn without quite his skill or technical ingenuity, and while there's not much to object to, there's not much that grabs your interest, either.

It concerns Lia (Sarah Pierse) and Nick (Nicholas Bell), a middle-aged, middle-class couple whose son Adam has been missing for four months, after disappearing on a back-packing trip to South East Asia. The lack of certainty about his fate intensifies their grief, creating conflicts in their marriage: Lia consults a psychic, Joyce (Beverley Dunn) whose vague wittering enrages Nick but gives her some comfort, while Nick takes refuge in his work. Meanwhile, Lia's father Gordon (Lewis Fiander), a slightly disreputable MP, inviegles her into making a documentary about her grief with the morally dubious television journalist Joanna (Caroline Brazier). And then they hear, at last, that Adam (Grant Cartwright) has been found, albeit with memory loss: but is it actually Adam whom they meet at the airport?

Writing all this down makes me almost go to sleep with contrariness. I suppose I have a deep failing, in that I don't really understand why this is theatre instead of television. It looks like theatre, I suppose. Julian Meyrick gives Enlightenment a perfectly decent, if somewhat slow, production: Ralph Myers' set reflects the play's process of shedding, as Lia and Nick's painful process of understanding is underlined by the gradual removal of their possessions, leaving them without protection against the uncertainty of life.

Meyrick employs a fine cast, and I enjoyed watching the performances, even as I lost patience with the play. From its initial domestic premise, it devolves into melodramatic silliness before ending on a grave note of philosophic resignation that explains everything that has gone before. Sarah Pierse in particular plays the complexities of fragility and toughness, guilt and grief, that inhabit her character, and Lewis Fiander is always enjoyable to watch on stage, a virtuosic performer in control of his space. And you feel that if Grant Cartwright's character made more sense, he'd be a magnetic presence on stage.

In short, there was enough going on to prevent acute anguish, and I never wanted to do the Dorothy Parker thing and shoot myself. But, gentle reader, it's very difficult to write about a play which neither offends you nor particularly interests you, that is neither stupid nor particularly intelligent, that seeks to explore, neither dishonestly nor with especially profound veracity, certain truisms about the transience and uncertainty of life. How do you write excitingly about indifference?


Anonymous said...

Interesting review, but I'm even more interested in your comment on the play itself. I've always though of Othello as one of Shakespeare's best plays, and act III, the best part of it. What about it doesn't seem to stand up to scrutiny?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tamar - I just think the structure in Act III is a bit shonky. Iago's manoeuverings have never convinced me as being sufficient reason for Othello's jealousy, he just falls into Iago's trap like a bunny. And although you swallow it - just - for me, it just doesn't wash, it's the playwright fudging. He covers it all with brilliant writing (after all, it is Shakespeare). If you compare it with Lear or Hamlet, they have no such moments.

Despite this, as I discovered, it's a brilliant play. Imperfection and brilliance are hardly incompatible.

Anonymous said...

Shame that Othello has to be subjected to post-whatever theories and political niceties about white people wearing black face and playing the role (the opera by Verdi is constant production around the world and has never been performed by a black tenor although there have been plenty of black sopranos who have sung Desdemona - including one in the concert performance performance here in melbourne in 2005)Until the MTC production of Othello back in the early 90's I had never seen a black actor as othello but I had seen plenty of damn good white actors including Simon Chilvers, Keith Mitchell and an amazingly good Donald Sinden who attended to the plays poetry as well as the drama, an ability sadly lacking among the actors who get work in Bell Shakespeare.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi anon - have you seen this particular production? I'd be interested in your thoughts.

I'm not sure what you mean here. I am not suggesting that white actors can't or shouldn't play the role, just that casting a fine actor like Wayne Blair as Othello makes it resonate in very interesting ways that differ from casting a white actor. Or did for me. I hope it's clear that this show is NOT a play on which various PC notions are imposed. It's much more interesting. And, just personally, I think the history of blackface is fascinating.

Anonymous said...

I did see it, and had a feeling that having a Koori in the role made the text (all those references to the 'moor') seem illogical. The same feeling I think people got when Laurence Olivier played Othello as a Negro.
In the play Othello has earned the greatest respect and is not in the job as a token (the "I have done the State some service" speech explains it all) and, maybe this is presumptive or me, I jut didn't believe that a Koori would ever be and never would be a commander of an army.
Apart from that the location being Cyprus and then Venice made it more jarring. And I didn't feel Blair (or anyone) rose to the great passion that is abstracted in the text. I just kept wondering how an ethic type that was unknown in 16th century Europe made his way to Venice. That was all that was resonating for me. He was not savage enough when he was convinced of Desdemona's infidelity (the repeated cries of "blood, blood, blood" have been done with such frenzy before).
This is a good segue into the state of performing this type of theatre in Australia.
Even with Bell Shake. touring around with these classics, Australian theatre has really lost the ability to deal with 'classical' theatre. The upcoming RSC tour is going to be a testing point for directors in how to attend to the many levels in the text (with Chekhov’s Seagull it will be even more interesting to compare with the last professional production of that play here - MTC 2004/5 or something) Othello isn't really a study of racism any more that The Merchant of Venice is or the Taming of the Shrew is a study of sexism.

I think I'm rambling, I don't actually respond to blogs, I just read them because the mainstream media is so poor when it comes to considering theatre and music. I did take it that you were regarding the show as a 'Lindy Davies lets get lost in subtext and superfluous game playing' examination of a theme rather than just a rattling good and shocking play about the effect an evil man can have.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm a bit gobsmacked. I really don't know how to respond to that, anon. How is an Indigenous actor any more "unbelievable" than a white man in black make-up? It's a piece of theatre, and Blair is an actor; and Shakespeare isn't exactly someone who went for historical realism.

I simply don't know what you mean by it being unimaginable that an Aboriginal might be a great soldier. Ironically, Blair's own father was the first Aboriginal regimental sergeant major in the Australian Army. Several Aboriginal soldiers were decorated in both the first and second world wars. Etc. That aside, I simply don't know how you can claim that Othello isn't about a black man in a white world, and that it doesn't deal with racism. The speeches before the Duke of Venice surely bring that to the foreground.

At no point did I claim that Othello was "a study in racism" - it's a tragedy - but it does seem to me rather difficult to maintain that racism is not there as a theme. Shakespeare wouldn't have known the word, but as the play shows, he was perfectly aware of the revulsion that black skin could evoke in a white - and crucially, colonial - society, and of the fears that it pulled on. Othello is useful to the State and so has earned his place; but as the play shows, if he steps any further beyond that, by presuming that he could woo a high born woman as any other great general could - there's all hell to pay.

I'm not sure I'll get to the RSC. I'm not on that press list, and part of me has been wondering whether it's worth chasing up (and perhaps they wouldn't be interested in a mere blogger). But whether it's any good or not, something in me bridles at the thought that Shakespeare can only be done in a "correct" way. I rather prefer the way Jann Kott thinks of his work, or the Shakespeare talked about in books like Radical Tragedy - ie, a playwright whose work is always vitally in the present. But I suspect we'll have to agree to disagree on this.

Alison Croggon said...

You did me a favour, anon - you made me get off my bum and see about RSC tickets, and the Arts Centre was most obliging. So I will be reviewing both shows when they're out here, which might make an interesting dialogue with this review. In an oblique way, of course...

Anonymous said...

Fraid not, I won't be seeing them (sold out and/or just too expensive and I have no strings to pull*)

*No offense meant

Anonymous said...

I want to know what anonymous meant with the reference to Lindy Davies style...

Alison Croggon said...

No offence taken, Anon - I work hard for those tickets. Say, eight hours to write a decent review @ oooh $50 an hour (very cheap freelance rates) and it adds up to $400 a show pro rata. Jeez, I'm paying too much!

I agree, the tickets are expensive. $159!!! Outrageous, I think. Though there are "view impaired" tickets released mid July, I noted, which presumably will be reasonably cheap. (And to be fair, the cheapest stalls tix are $39 - right up the back of the State Theatre, I guess, which is not ideal).

I think I know what the Lindy Davies crack meant, but would be curious to hear it spelt out.

Btw, can Anons use a nom de plume? It gets confusing when there's more than one.

Anonymous said...

Ticket buyers be warned (if there are any tickets left for Lear or Seagull) the production has a large space with a lot of upstage action. The State Theatre is terrible when housing productions not actually designed for it (which is everything that plays there) therefore if you sit in the balcony past say row F you will loose a lot of the stage picture.
View impaired sounds like they have not been able to modify the set enough.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,
I don't know if you're still reading comments, and I know this isn't a forum on Shakespeare, but I love Othello too much not to respond to the "shakiness" in act III discussion...
OF COURSE Othello buys into Iago's talk absurdely easily. But what if that's not an oversight on the part of the playwright, but a comment on how evil (as practised by Iago) operates? The only (plausible) way Othello would capitulate so quickly is if Iago's not putting anything in his head that wasn't already there. We all have doubts, and deeply rooted insecurites, conscious or not, and Iago attacks Othello by in effect forcing Othello to attack himself with his own doubts. It's simple to combat evil that's completely alien to one's being, but what if the evil works by speaking to and awakening a darkness that exists in one's own psyche? Not so simple then, but a wonderful idea to illustrate in one of the finest tragedies ever written!
(Sorry, I really couldn't resist this post. Shakespeare is irresistable.)

Nicholas Pickard said...

Did anyone have the fortune of seeing Cheek by Jowls Othello at the Sydney Theatre in 2004?

Absolutely magnificent... the final scene where Othello chokes Desdemona by holding her aloft was gut wrenching....

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tamar

No apology necessary! Shakespeare is surely one of the most enjoyable people ever to argue about... in fact, I spent some time last night debating his "best plays" (code for "my favourite plays" because, really, what does it mean?) - for the record, mine are Lear, Hamlet and The Tempest.

I get what you're saying. But I still feel that jolt every time I read it or see it, it requires a suspension of disbelief for me. It's as if WS missed some tiny but crucial beat beforehand. If it were set up with some brief scene that innocently seeded some of Othello's suspicion - I don't know, Desdemona and Cassio plotting a surprise birthday party, which he interrupts (not serious, o ghost of WS, just to illustrate) - something which raises doubts in Othello that he hastily smothers, it would carry so much more force. I don't usually read plays with such psychological literalism, but here I just trip every time. You're certainly not alone in your quibbling with me. But I think he's just cunningly throwing wool in our eyes. Just a little, and he's the cunningest woolthrower of all, so you can justify it - but...

(Also, Amelia is a strange role - so important, so underwritten in the first it's almost too late when she does do her schtick...)

No, sadly I've only seen Cheek by Jowl's Duchess of Malfi, which was pretty magnificent. The death scene here was pretty unbearable too.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I saw Cheek by Jowl's production and thought it was excellent. My sweet, if rather naive, companion was concerned during the scene you mention that the actor playing Desdemona really was dead - talk about suspension of disbelief! And I thoroughly enjoyed the repeated reveal of the dear lady's dead body, whipping off the sheet for every newcomer to get the requisite shock - perhaps in this respect Alison's potboiler comment is relevant but it made me think what a crowd-pleaser Shakespeare was. As in The Duchess of Malfi, the old 'she's dead, oh no she's not' trick where she gets to shock us all one more before dying again gets me every time. I love the poor tragic Moor with his insecurities and the wicked sociopath, Iago!

And, Alison, 'mere blogger' - I think not! Blogger Extraordinaire, more like! Belated congratulations for all your recent and most impressive accomplishments, which it warms my heart to read of.

Anonymous said...

I loved the Cheek by Jowl production.

A couple of thoughts come to mind.

In the Cheek by Jowl production, Emilia was played by a black actor. Giving Iago a black wife made him seem even more like Othello's "other self". On a more superficial level it implied that Iago's belief that Othello had slept with Emilia was grounded in another layer of racism.

The arc of Iago's character was also interesting because he began the play fuming with jealous rage, almost out of control. Once he takes action to destroy Othello he becomes calm. He then transfers his jealous rage to Othello. As the show progresses, Othello reaches the same heights of jealous rage that we saw in Iago at the start. In effect they trade places.

Othello calms down again when he resolves to take action and kill Desdemona, drawing another parallel with Iago's journey.

Shame that production never made it to Melbourne.

Anonymous said...

Just to talk about the OTHER play being reviewed here for a second, or rather a small element of the review - describing it as being "in the tradition of Alan Aycbkourn" seems peculiarly inaccurate - Ayckbourn rarely descnends into issue-led melodrama in the way that Shelagh Stephenson's work does. He also has a pure visual theatrical sense that means it's impossible to describe his work, as you've described Stepheonson's, as televisual - the basic enjoyment of most of his plays need an actively engaged audience to play against.

Yes, I'm aware this is a massive over-reaction to the use of one playwrights' name in the review of another's work, but, hey, this is the internet, massive overreactions are what it's for...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Simon - that doesn't seem like a massive overreaction to me at all. You're rather too polite!

I quite agree with your summation of the differences between the playwrights - according to this play, at least; I'm not familiar with her other work. And, fwiw, I have a deal of respect for Ayckbourn, who does what he does extremely well. I meant by that reference that Shelagh, like Ayckbourn, works a vein of finely observed middle-class naturalism. (And you have to admit, surely, that although The Norman Conquests made great theatre, they also made great tv). And Stephenson does name Ayckbourn as a major influence on her work.