Othello. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Peter Evans. Bell Shakespeare Company. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. Until October 22. Bookings: 62752700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au.
There is an apocryphal tale that purports that the leading tragedian of the Elizabethan age, Richard Burbage, challenged Shakespeare to write a role that would be too difficult for him to play. By 1603 he had conquered Hamlet and many other roles and now sought a higher challenge. Shakespeare took up the gauntlet and wrote Othello.
Shakespeare's drama of the noble Moor's tragic downfall at the hands of a villainous and scheming Iago challenges audiences to enter into a willing suspension of disbelief and for actors to scale the physical and emotional demands of the play. Bell Shakespeare's artistic director, Peter Evans, offers a lucid and engaging, if not impassioned interpretation of trust betrayed and love defiled. Set designer Michael Hankin's towering and domineering columns border an open stage with only a long table on wheels moved by the actors to represent a table, bed or balcony. Paul Jackson's lighting subtly and evocatively suggests the change of scene, while Evans' forthright and fluid direction allows for clarity of theme and plot and an effective economy and impact of action.
Yalin Ozucelik's Iago, without ostentation or hyperbole and in confidential asides, invites the audience to become passive accomplices in his treacherous plan to avenge his rejection as Othello's lieutenant in favour of the noble Cassio (Michael Wahr). Ozucelik's Iago is dangerously plausible as he works his deception well on Othello's readily aroused jealousy and doubt. As Othello, Ray Chong Nee charts the turbulent journey from the respected stature of the military hero to the tragically tormented and imagined cuckold with calculated measure. It is in the horrifying final scenes that Nee truly unleashes the full passion of Othello's terrible decline. In the supporting roles of Cassio and the gullible fool, Roderigo, Wahr and Edmund Lembke-Hogan give convincing performances as pawns in Iago's devious conspiracy. Elizabeth Nabben's Desdemona and Joanna Downing's Emilia are the defenceless innocents and unfortunate victims of their sex in a chauvinist society. Nabben's Desdemona, rejected by her authoritarian father, Brabantio, strongly performed by James Lugton, and wronged by her obsessed husband, strikes a touching chord of empathy. As Emilia, Downing presents a younger wife to Iago than is often portrayed. Her performance captures the foolish naivety of her loyalty, but not the mature experience of her advice. Desdemona's haunting Willow Song is regrettably diminished in its portent in Bell Shakespeare's interpretation.
Long tours can take their toll, and Evans' production is performing in Canberra after months on the road and before its final season at the Sydney Opera House. The strain on voices and a certain familiarity that can come with lengthy tours have crept into the production. However, this did not seem to matter to one member of the audience who gasped each time a knife was drawn, or Othello struck Desdemona in an impulsive act of fuel-enraged domestic violence. Her hands were raised high in enthusiastic applause and her whistle shrilled in appreciation at the curtain call. Shakespeare has spun his magic. Othello has unleashed its power and Bell Shakespeare has met the challenge with some measure of acclaim.