Othello, by William Shakespeare | Directed by Peter Evans

Bell Shakespeare (https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au) | Playhouse, Sydney Opera House | Until 4 December

Othello, a Moorish General, has secretly married fair Desdemona, daughter of the Venetian senator Brabantio. This is the first and most obvious of the play’s black/white imagery. Meanwhile, Othello’s ensign Iago feels slighted that he has been passed over for promotion. That honour has gone to Cassio, an up-and-coming young soldier.

What follows is a series of vengeful machinations by Iago to destroy Othello through his love for Desdemona. He lights the fire of black jealousy with Othello, with deadly consequences.

As written, Iago is a masterful Machiavellian whose duplicitousness is relentless. Known as an honest man, as a man of honour, the audience is allowed to see beneath the mask to the real man  – a deceiver who will do and say anything to achieve the revenge he seeks. And this represents another form of black/white antithesis explored in Othello. Iago is not what he seems; he presents a positive/negative image.

Ray Chong Nee’s Othello is a slow-burn performance. That’s partly due to the character’s development from ‘white’ to ‘black’. He is perhaps a little too sedate and soft-spoken to begin, too gently depicting Othello initially as the restrained and civilized General before morphing into the negative image of the character, wild with jealousy, uncivilized, raging to the point of convulsion.

Elizabeth Nabben plays Desdamona with a modern sensibility, but at the same time is able to make the character’s submission to Othello convincing and, by the end, heartbreaking. Her natural ballerina-like grace makes it easy to believe so many would fall for her charms (Cassio, Roderigo, Othello, and perhaps Iago), but her vivaciousness gives her an earthy, likable quality.

Iago, arguably the main character of the play rather than the titular Othello, is a little more problematic. Yallin Ozucelik’s Iago is a bloke next door. Less sinister, no shadow of malevolence guiding his manipulation; more selfish, merely a slighted opportunist. And this is to the production’s detriment. Iago should be able to change his demeaner in a beat, to be what each of the other characters in his world need him to be in order for him to manipulate them according to his schemes. Ozucelik provides an abundance of energy and pace to the role, but little finesse. At times he seems more intent on helping the audience understand the dialogue by acting out the lines rather than simply speaking them authentically.

Special mention must be made of Edmund Lembke-Hogan’s Roderigo, who is a mere ‘gull’ to fill Iago’s coffers and further his machinations. But Lembke-Hogan imbues Roderigo’s every line with a comedic flavour that makes me await his every appearance with gleeful anticipation. He doesn’t just play Roderigo for laughs, though. The character is consistent and well formed.

Cassio (Michael Wahr) is more a gormless young gun than a true rival to Othello, which unfortunately makes Othello’s transformation to wildly jealous maniac a little less believable than it should be.

Michael Hawkins’ set is a perfect canvas for Peter Evans’ direction, and expresses the light/dark dichotomy explored in the play beautifully. The stage is stark but forboding, the floor and pillars covered in a dark oppressive velvet. In contrast, the pillars allow light to pierce the stage in ways that at times illuminate, and at times fracture, the action. Hand-held and mobile lights also explore the lightness and darkness of characters, situations and dialogue.

The production is obviously designed to be portable – the play is being performed in 27 different venues across Australia – but the design is imaginative enough that it can be used in myriad ways to richly create the world of Othello. A simple large block on wheels, in the hands of the actors, becomes everything from strategy meeting table to Barbantio’s balcony.

The staging of the climax – Desdamona’s death – is brilliant. The Guest and I held our breaths, the tension palpable in the theatre, as the moment drew near. The scene was played so well that we felt there should perhaps have been some kind of trigger warning for the audience. I assume that this is a part of Bell Shakespeare’s education programme … if so, I hope that there is a debrief/discussion after every performance.

All images: Daniel Boud.

Raymond Chong Nee and Elizabeth Nabben.

Yallin Ozucelik.