REVIEW: Bell Shakespeare’s Othello

Esteemed singer-songwriter, Paul Kelly, once noted that “just about anything you want to say, Shakespeare’s said it already”. I’d been churning this quote over in my head in the weeks after reading it, and continued to do so as I entered The Sydney Opera House’s Playhouse Theatre to see Bell Shakespeare’s production of Othello. As Kelly suggests, it is Shakespeare’s ability to wrestle with social issues that marked the Bard as being centuries ahead of his time. But despite his ability to teach us of the human condition’s perils, one of Shakespeare’s most culturally penetrative works, Othello, still has many question marks around it.

Othello tells the story of the titular character, who is a “Moorish” general in the Venetian army. After marrying Desdemona, the white daughter of a Venetian senator, Othello, his army and Desdemona travel to battle in Cyprus. Unbeknownst to the newlyweds,one of Othello’s soldiers, Iago, is plotting against him. Iago hopes to unravel Othello’s marriage by convincing him that Desdemona is being unfaithful to him, resulting in a downward spiral into madness and lots of bloodshed. The play is a tragedy, but there has long been debate as to the “tragic flaw” of the play’s eponymous character.

While Shakespearean tragedies traditionally feature a hero who is thwarted by ambition, indecision or another similar flaw, many have questioned whether or not Othello actually has a tragic flaw. Is Othello’s tragic flaw his jealousy or gullibility? Or is he instead a victim of Iago’s calculated manipulation, rather than of an overt personal shortcoming?  This question has led Othello to be one of the most divisive plays in The Bard’s repertoire.

The reason I am labouring this point is that any modern adaptation of a Shakespearean play will inevitably take some creative licence on the original text. In Othello, a play whose central narrative is the subject of such debate, this interpretation is all the more crucial. At what point does Othello turn from being a humble soldier to a brutish menace? And who is to blame for this descent into madness- Iago or Othello himself? Bell Shakespeare’s production of Othello seems to relish this uncertainty, turning the theatre into a place of claustrophobia and embracing the discordance caused by the play’s inherent moral ambiguity.

The physicality and set of the production work effectively in doing this. Director Peter Evans mentions the “dark intimacy” of Michael Hankin’s set design in his program notes. The set, in its simplicity and stasis throughout the play, inevitably draws the audience in. Indeed, there are very few set changes, and almost no points at which the lights go down. In keeping us in the foreground of this static, all-essentials environment, we become implicated in the action, almost frustrated with the emotional wasteland on display before us.  The physicality of the party scene adds flavour and provides brief reprieve from this turmoil.


Senator Brabantio confronts Othello as to his love for Desdemona. Pic source: Theatre Royal

As we look on, Yalin Ozucelik’s Iago engineers Othello’s descent into madness, and we find ourselves almost relating to him. Ozucelik harnesses the wicked humour behind the character to stunning effect, and his delivery is consistently personable. We’re left wondering- could this character who looks and speaks like a fairly normal person, really be the source of Othello’s downfall?

At the same time, Ray Chong Nee’s understated portrayal of Othello commands an empathy for the protagonist, as his soliloquies take on a musical kind of resonance. Later in the play, just as the audience is becoming more familiar with the space and the complexity of each character, Othello spirals into a state of insanity. And what a state of insanity it is. The production is chillingly violent, with members of the audience letting out audible groans as Othello attacks his innocent bride. The groans seem to be as much of pity as of horror, as we now somehow find ourselves siding with Othello.

Herein lies the beauty of the production. In its moral ambiguity and ability to stay with the audience, Bell Shakespeare’s Othello draws on the essence of the original play with both authenticity and power. At the same time, it adds just the right amount of adaptive zest to the original play text in its physicality and all-essentials set design. The production is a reminder that while Shakespeare, as Paul Kelly suggests, may have said it all, his work is still dazzlingly rewarding of creative interpretation.

Othello is playing in Sydney until December 4. You can purchase tickets here.

Pulp Editors