Review: Not What I am: Othello Retold ~ theatre notes

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Review: Not What I am: Othello Retold

Not What I Am – Othello Retold by William Shakespeare, directed by Anne Thompson. Conception and dramaturgy by Anne Thompson, Stuart Orr, David Treninnick and cast. Design by Julie Renton, lighting by Kick Pajanti, composer Wally Gunn. With Rodney Afif, Shelly Lauman, David Trendinnick, Jane Nolan, Stuart Orr and Greg Ulfan. The Eleventh Hour, The Eleventh Hour Theatre, Melbourne, until December 15. Bookings: (03) 9419 5649.

For several years The Eleventh Hour has been one of the treasures of the Melbourne theatre scene. From their base in an enviably beautiful little theatre in Fitzroy, they’ve built an enthusiastic following.

And rightly so. Under directors William Henderson and Anne Thompson, this company – which exists entirely on private funding – has offered fresh interpretations of playwrights as various as Sarah Kane, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and Arthur Miller, with a particular emphasis on Shakespeare.

They create a fascinating form of stylised physical theatre, with inventive mise en scène and choreography. As far as I’m concerned, their robust approach to plays can sometimes be controversial – for example, an otherwise superb production of Beckett’s Endgame last year suffered from extra-textual interruptions.

But, agree with them or not, their productions are always intelligent, beautifully performed and superbly produced. Their radically reworked version of Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy of the Moor of Venice, is no exception.

Not What I am – Othello Retold is a cut-and-paste of Othello which at times almost turns Shakespeare’s text into an oratorio.

Playing on the ambiguity of Moorishness, Othello (Rodney Afif) is Arabic rather than African. He and Desdemona (Shelly Lauman) form the central axis of the production. The rest of the cast – Iago (David Trendinnick), Emilia (Jane Nolan), Cassio (Stuart Orr) and Roderigo (Greg Ulfan) – doubles as a chorus, sinisterly cloaked in anonymous black.

The chorus represents Venice itself. They introduce themselves as the seven deadly sins, exemplified in Shakespeare’s play by Iago, one of his most charismatically evil characters. In this version, Iago’s wickedness is distributed through the populace of Venice, which collaborates to destroy Othello and Desdemona’s scandalously miscegenous marriage.

The lush design, a construction of Moorish walls and windows gorgeously lit in ochres and umbers, centres on Othello’s marriage bed. And from the beginning, the erotic marriage of sex and death is in the foreground: Othello’s final speech before he murders Desdemona is here performed as a seduction, exploiting the ancient pun that orgasm is a “little death”.

The other characters are as sexually charged as the central pair, drawing every erotic implication out of Shakespeare’s loaded language. As the tragedy nears its inevitable bloodbath, the production becomes almost hallucinatory, like a glimpse into Othello’s madness.

The excellent cast is equal to the extreme vocal and physical demands and is sometimes skin-pricklingly good.

As a colleague perceptively remarked afterwards, this is Othello as a revenge tragedy. Or, perhaps, as a spoken opera. Definitely one for the diary.

This review appeared in today's Australian.

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