Fair use and abuse... The Bell Shakespeare Company's Othello
I am taking the inexcusable liberty of purloining a review from another blog. It comes from a pseudonymous commenter at Nicholas Pickard's blog, Arts Journalist. It was posted in response to Pickard's largely positive review of the Sydney season of The Bell Shakespeare Company's Othello.
Why have I 'nicked' it? Cos it's well written, strongly argued and too good to be buried in a comments thread.
Noam Plume writes:
I thought the production was very interesting and enjoyed it a lot – perhaps in spite of its rather profound performance shortcomings.
Blair's performance seemed to me to be one where he adopted [perhaps was directed to adopt] a few postures/physical positions to try & overcome what I have come to see as his habitual physical patterns as an actor.
What you refer to as “mesmerising movement that verges on ancient ritual and dance” I saw as his typically uncontrolled physicality – though its incidence was much reduced by the adoption of a series of straight-jacket poses – hands held tight behind back etc. I have always found his lack of discipline in this area very distracting. It removes from his work the clarity that good storytelling requires.
His usual lip smacking and chewing remained and his eye flutters repeated through the show seemingly without rhyme or reason. I was in the front row so this may have not been so obvious further off. Some have interpreted these gestures as a ‘preview’ of the last scene’s fit – but if that was how they were intended I found them very unconvincing – poorly placed and ignored by everyone else witnessing them.
To drive another nail in, I felt that he was often unable to make sense of the verse as the emotion increased.
Other drawbacks from my perspective were Walsman’s droning voiced Desdamona – which flattened all poetry to nothingness - perhaps big spaces are too much for her vocal technique to maintain the flexibility required for poetic language and my final whinge is about Wren’s performance as Cassio, which felt to me to come from the ‘aw-gee-shucks’ school of acting.[A personal prejudice perhaps.] It seems quite common for characters of that type to be played as if they’ve had an intellect bypass. Surely the character is more interesting the more dimensions they have.
That said – none of these things stopped me enjoying the show and Graham’s Iago was engaging and charming, Butel’s Roderigo a fabulous, frenzied madness of love and lust and Chris Ryan a fascinating presence – was his white face a ‘shadow’ of Othello’s black one? Was he conscience to both Othello and Iago? Was he us – the witness to the destruction of a great man? All of these I hope.
Stunning lights and the use of the oil drums to add percussive punctuations were other successful elements to a show that was either moderately well directed or brilliantly directed [depending on your theory of how Potts handled Blair’s performance].
Finally, though there was fascination there wasn’t much emotion to the experience. Thus the focus of the play moved from Othello to Iago. One colleague’s reflection that I found interesting was that it turned the play into one about a liar who, for their own gratification, leads a credulous dupe to their doom. Which really makes it a play for our times. The next election will test that theory.
N.B. All punctuation, spelling and brackets as per the original comment.
For the record, here's my review of the Melbourne premiere in May. An edited version of this review ran in the Herald Sun on Tuesday, June 5, 2007.
If only Shakespeare had lavished as much time on the plot of Othello has he did its individual speeches... It has a slasher story that would embarrass an Italian opera impresario. But, love it or hate it, Othello is a more-than-usually responsive play. It's a chessboard of intrigue and powerplay.
In Marion Potts' lean and hungry production, Iago is the King of the board. All others are his pawns. But Potts hasn't quite nutted out Iago's motivation. He hates "the moor". But, why?
Traditionally, Iago is older and far more experienced than the young General. He's bitter and vengeful that he's been overlooked while his younger, dark-skinned rival has advanced speedily through the ranks.
Here, Iago (Marcus Graham) is younger, subtler -- and definitely craftier -- than his grizzled Othello (Wayne Blair). And his malignant hatred is unexplained. Though not unbelievable.
One aspect of the play that is brilliantly realised is the racism of the first act. Brabantio (Bob Baines) reacts to the loss of his daughter to Othello as a Klansman might. He accuses Othello of practicing on Desdemona (Leeanna Walsman) "with foul charms" and abusing her delicate youth "with drugs or minerals.."
Yet Othello's failure to get steamed up in this scene makes his jealous rage in the latter acts seem all the more bizarre and irrational.
Marcus Graham is charismatic and utterly compelling as Iago. He could charm serpents with his voice. And he has the moves to match. There is a strong emphasis on spidery -- almost martial -- movement throughout the production. It draws us into the weave of the drama and holds us tight.
On first night, the tension ebbed in the final act; focus was lost when it should have been at its sharpest. Leeanna Walsman wasn't at her usual brilliant best -- she sounded congested.
But this is a better than average Othello and one that should improve over the next few days.
Othello, attributed to William Shakespeare. Directed by Marion Potts. Designed by Ralph Myers (set), Bruce McKinven (costumes), Nick Schlieper (lighting). Sound design and composition by Max Lyandvert and Stefan Gregory. Fight direction by Kyle Rowling. Playhouse, The Arts Centre Melbourne, May 31.
Currently: Sydney (Opera House, Drama Theatre) until July 28. Then Orange (Civic Centre), August 2 to 4.
For more Othello reviews -- positive and negative -- see here.