Othello, by William Shakespeare | Directed by Peter Evans

Bell Shakespeare (https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au) | Arts Centre, Melbourne | Until 23 July; then moves to the Playhouse Theatre, Canberra, 14-22 October; and then Sydney Opera House, 25 October-4 December

As the audience moved to their seats at the commencement of the performance, Desdemona is already on stage, lying lifeless on a grey slab, which was to become the centre piece of a stark and otherwise barren stage, her eventual fate already known to most of the audience.

Enter the main protagonists and it is quickly established that Othello, a Moorish General, and Desdomona are in love, clearly demonstrated by their flirtatious and open affection for each other.

Having been wooed by his charm, Desdemona secretly marries Othello, an alliance not approved of by her father, the Duke. However the Duke too accepts this situation after listening to Othello’s proclamation of love for his daughter.

Othello is then instructed to set sail for Cyprus as a Turkish attack is imminent.

Desdemona is determined to accompany her husband and, along with Iago, Roderigo, Cassio and Emilia, Iago’s wife, sets sail for Cyprus, where the main theme of the play unfolds.

With Iago unhappy about being passed over by Othello for promotion in favour of Cassio, and Roderigo, a wealthy man paying Iago to assist in his pursuit of Desdemona, the scene is set for the evil plotting which ensues.

Ray Chong Nee plays Othello with great skill, moving seamlessly between love and jealousy with equal passion and depth of feeling. It is a standout performance.

As the loving and devoted husband of Desdemona, his performance cannot be faulted, yet as he falls prey to the cunning and deceit of Iago, his rage and jealousy are played with equal conviction.

Yalin Ozucelik, as Iago, gives a very physical performance. He moves quickly and theatrically across the stage as he schemes to bring down Othello, initially by contriving to get Cassio drunk and blamed for an ensuing brawl.

This leads to Desdemona pleading Cassio’s case with her husband further adding to his suspicions.

Iago involves his wife, Emilia, in the betrayal of Othello by Desdemona by demanding that she relinquishes the precious handkerchief innocently dropped by Desdemona into the hands of her husband, who then plants it in Cassio’s room to further fuel the suspicion against Desdemona.

All of this is successful and Othello becomes increasingly affected by his jealousy and determines to have Cassio and Desdemona killed.

Iago is a central character in the play, yet the physicality of Yalin Ozucelik’s performance tends to distract the audience from his evil intentions casting him more as a fool than a villain.

What is puzzling, yet what makes this play relevant today, is that Othello is so ready to believe that his wife has deceived him. There is no opportunity for his suspicions to be challenged by Desdemona, making his justification for her death all the more disturbing.

While one would hope that this situation would not so readily occur in real life, issues around domestic violence that are with us today are indications that this behaviour is not confined to Shakespeare’s plays.

As with most Shakespearean works, the themes and ideas have relevance regardless of place and time. Othello is no exception and this performance by Bell Shakespeare is well worth a look.

Above: Othello cast members. Below: Ray Chong Nee and Elizabeth Nabben, Images: Daniel Boud.