Saturday, October 15, 2016

Othello - Bell Shakespeare

Review by John Lombard

Othello's flaw is traditionally thought of as jealousy, the "green-eyed monster," but it's really insecurity.  Othello is an outsider, a dark-skinned Moor who has earned an honoured place in Venetian society through his integrity and military prowess.  But when he begins to suspect his new wife Desdemona of infidelity, he can only see his shortcomings: that he is an older man with a young wife, and somehow worse than that there is the gulf of race between them.  Othello's tragedy isn't that he does not trust Desdemona, but that deep down he does not believe she can love him.

In this production at least, we understand perfectly why Desdemona (Elizabeth Nabben) chooses Othello (Ray Chong Nee) when she could easily have a much younger man.  Desdemona is wise and centred, by her own admission not the life of party, a homebody with an arresting maturity.  Some delicately observed costuming by Michael Hankin kits her out in trendy slacks and a cosy sweater, simultaneously chic and dowdy.  She is a perfect match for Ray Chong Nee's statesman-like, purringly persuasive Othello: we instinctively sense that they are seeking blissful retirement rather than adventure.

Of course, the couple have no opportunity to settle down into comfortable days, because Iago is there to plot the Moor's downfall.  Iago is fascinating as a villain because his motives are so pure: he hates Othello, therefore he ruins his happiness.  Iago is certainly jealous of the Moor, but his stated grievances - being overlooked for a promotion, a feeble suspicion that his wife has slept with Othello - are so wildly disproportionate to his wrath that there is clearly something else there.  He is almost a Deus ex Machina inserted into the play to bring about the tragedy.

Yalin Ozucelik's Iago is rat-like, not just a monster of willpower but vulgar, servile and crass.  He frequently addresses the audience to discuss his plans and comes across as genuinely unhinged.  It is easy to understand why he was passed over for promotion; less easy to understand why anyone trusts him at all.  Throughout the play characters made assertions about Iago's honesty and these were so absurd that they never failed to raise a chuckle from the audience.  While Iago wears a mask talking to other characters, he crackled with so much sleazy malevolence that for the audience his intentions were always transparent: we saw him as he really is, not as the other characters in the play see him.

As a production that is nearly at the end of an intensive tour, this performance was extraordinarily polished, and characterisations felt spot-on, whether Michael Wahr's dashing but jejune Cassio or Edmund Lembke-Hogan's spoony dullard Rodergio.  Joanna Downing's Emilia is especially fascinating, Iago's wife and as apparently slow-witted and ponderous as Iago is feverishly cerebral.  Their relationship seems to be entirely physical (although perhaps Iago likes having a wife who does not ask too many questions), but at times the edge he has around her seems like hatred.  Yet when she realises the scale of her husband's misconduct she becomes the violence of conscience, her integrity sounding louder than wit.

Where the production stumbles is in the breakneck pace at which Othello goes from being wise and reasonable to unhinged.  Iago plants a seed, and then in the very next scene it has magically become a wilderness.  There are references in the text to how great Othello's transformation is, but here Othello needed to be either established as emotional earlier in the play or his descent into madness more wisely rationed out.  Ray Chong Nee does an excellent job of showing us the complete disintegration of Othello's personality but because it is too much too soon it is distancing, all the worse because of the psychology of the rest of the play is so carefully justified.  This is certainly an issue in Shakespeare's script but more needed to be done to mitigate this convenient implausibility.

The pay-off was brilliant however, with an excellently staged murder scene.  The realism of the scene brought home the horror of the tragedy, all the more powerful because the heavy dramatic irony of the play made it feel both inevitable and so easily averted.  Harsh lighting and creepy, discordant music created an unsettling vibe without, perfect for a voyage into dark emotional places.

In general however the greatest strength of this production of Othello was brilliant characterisation by the cast.  Director Peter Evans described the professionalism and commitment of the cast in his post-show comments, and it shines through in rich characters and relationships.  All the staging really needed to do was get out of the way and let us enjoy these fine performances.  With the exception of Othello's headlong rush into convenient madness, Bell Shakespeare's new Othello is chilling and fascinating, worth experiencing just for its invitation into the twisting labyrinth of Iago's mind.