Othello: who is the hero here?

Bell Shakespeare Company, Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House

A good production of Othello always sets us up to ask, who is the hero here?

Is it Othello, who offers so much virtue, but corrupts himself so absolutely? Cassio, with all his classical hero features, left to restore order at the end? Can Iago be thought of as fully the antihero, the play more centred on him than his pawns? I often feel the real answer is Emilia, whose courageous adherence to the truth, and heroic self-sacrifice, is the emotional crux of the final act (yes, it is. Fight me.) However, the recent Bell Shakespeare production has me thinking the answer is James Lughton. While this Othello offered decent performances from Othello, Iago and Desdemona, there is simply no excuse in such a competitive field as acting to have an incapable Cassio, Rodrigo and other minor roles, or for Brabantio (Lughton) to be the only actor with the power to fully possess the stage. I have seen several productions directed by Peter Evans now, and each one has been flawed by some terribly weak performances in key roles. I haven’t seen the actors concerned in other productions, so I don’t know whether the problem is that Evans is bad at casting or bad at getting the performance needed out of certain kinds of actors. Ray Chong Nee as Othello was riveting in passages heavy on dialogue, no matter who his counterpart was in the scene, but unable to sustain the more rhetorical speeches. As soon as he was called upon to give a longer speech, with passages of narrative or imagery, he lost the life from his performance. Convincing in one moment as a man of vitality living through a profound experience, he would turn repeatedly into someone on a stage giving a recitation. It’s pretty common for an actor to find dialogue easier to connect  with, but this suggests to me a director who lacks the tools to help an actor find that same conviction and immediacy in a monologue.

Desdemona’s murder was exquisitely staged behind, and then using, a translucent curtain, and Elizabeth Nabben put everything into a convincing fight for her life. However if the production was to have something meaningful to contribute to the crucial conversation about women suffering violence at the hands of men who claim to love them, it needed to allow Emilia much more time and space for her own experience as a victim of essentially the same crime.

The company’s next venture is a Richard III starring one of Australia’s most vigorously intellectual writer/performers, Kate Mulvaney, so this may be the adrenalin shot they need.

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