The Melbourne Festival production of Peter Sellars Desdemona sold out. With reactions ranging from “tedious” – there were walk outs and some impressive snoring – to genius, it’s been talked about a lot. I’m in the genius camp. I was engrossed, fascinated and enchanted by a work that’s equally as meditative and relaxing as it’s demanding and forceful.
American Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison and Malian musician Rokia Traoré wrote their reflection on Shakespeare’s Othello via email.
Set in an afterlife where people become their true selves, the now-adult Desdemona meets the woman who brought her up, her mother’s slave Barbary – referenced once in the text. Traoré sings as Barbary, with two female backing vocalists and two male musicians, and Tina Benko speaks Morrison’s text as Desdemona.
The contrast is far more than the obvious black and white. Traoré sings like there’s nothing guarding her emotions. It’s music that is felt more than heard and the projected translations of her songs are barely necessary. Benko relies on the meanings of her words. Her Desdemona is trying to break free of what she wanted to see as true love and hides behind a wall of anger and confusion that is torn down even when she doesn’t want it to be. Both remarkable performances feed the other without diluting each other’s power or story.
In this place they are able to see their relationship through the eyes of the other. Barbary – which wasn’t her real name; it was what the English called Africa – saw herself as a slave, with no rank and no choice, who did whatever the child Desdemona wanted. Desdemona saw Barbary as her real mother, her best friend, and the only person who loved and comforted her. She also saw her position as young woman “on the cusp of unmarriageability” as one where her choices were as limited as Barbary’s. However, she wanted to love like Barbary and chose a man worthy of her. She married Othello, the only black man she’d met.
Desdemona also meets and shares her meetings with the other dead, including her servant Emilia, her own mother, Othello’s mother and Othello. Knowing the story helps, but this work is about the relationships between characters, so it’s not necessary
I haven’t read Othello well, but this production let me see it from perspectives that I had never have thought of. And this is the heart of how Sellars creates theatre.
I discuss Peter Sellar’s festival artist talk on my blog SometimesMelbourne.
This production is in Sydney on 23, 24 & 25 October. Details: sydneyfestival.org.au.