Othello

by / 28/05/07

William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathon Hendry
Downstage Theatre
May 12 – June 9

Unlike Shakespeare’s other tragedies Othello is a wholly domestic disaster, involving a household as opposed to a royal court, the climactic scene taking place in a bedroom rather than a grand hall.

[SPOILER - some people have not read nor know Othello, and to them please do explore it]. The deaths of Roderigo, Emilia, Desdemona and Othello affect no-one other than those closely associated with them. There are no unearthly witches nor spirits in this play; everything hinges on a handkerchief.

Cassio (Simon Vincent) was a joy to observe. While his verse speaking was the best of the production, it was his focus of body and response that was most notable. I did want the less pleasing side of Cassio, which he reveals only when in the company of other men, to be more disconcertingly despicable. I enjoyed Alistair Browning’s performance as Montano, displaying the passion of a fighting man in presence, although some of his delivery was overwhelmed by storm sound. Jennifer Ludlam, as Emilia, cast consistently to an agéd Iago (Peter Hambleton), gave a robust performance.

Desdemona’s function in the play is to make apparent the essence of love and purity. She loves Othello to the extent that she would rather that he kill her than continue living in the misery she seems to be causing. She returns from the dead to proclaim Othello’s guiltlessness. While I feel Desdemona (Madeleine Hyland) in this production was bland, accountability may lie with director rather than actor.

Desdemona seems to have been interpreted as nonpivotal in this show’s concept, only emphasising this reading of Desdemona as a mere representation of Iago’s manipulation of jealousy in Othello by cladding her in a green frock.

This production chose to cast older actors in the roles of Iago and Emilia. The unfortunate ramifications of altering Shakespeare’s stated age for Iago are clear throughout the play, particularly in the relationships between doomed characters and in the motivations in response by the characters.

Regardless of this, Othello (Jim Moriarty) was convincing in his anguish and madness derived from jealousy, underlined in his return to the safety of his culture. Indefensible however is the direction of the crucial scene in which Othello redeems himself to the audience, his words drowned by a troupe of actors calling to him in Maori, armed with blazing poles, destroying the illusion of an enclosed domestic tragedy.

While the lighting is exceptional it is lacking in its storytelling ability, (how can we believe Iago’s hatred if we cannot see him?)

This production does not focus on the love of Desdemona and Othello, nor on the rivalry between Cassio and Iago, running hungrily alongside them. It concentrates on Iago and Othello, which undermines the play’s brilliance. The play is not about their relationship and a production based upon it can only leave actors performing on one level. The audience cannot respond if you do not give them reason to believe there is meaning and danger beneath the words.

The Downstage production of Othello is impressive in cast and design, but does not communicate convincingly an engaging story to the audience. I do not believe that people watching this production will feel they have misused their money by joining the audience; some people thoroughly enjoyed themselves and were impressed by the design. It is far from a lack of ability that lets this production down but rather the lack of embracing, devastating and disarming storytelling.

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