Othello is a risky production, entwining classic Shakespearean themes with modern ideas, taking beloved characters in new directions and manoeuvring large, complex, mobile sets. Lucky for the State Theatre Company it’s a risk that, for the most part, pays off.
Shakespeare’s Othello follows the story of a man who descends into a jealousy-fuelled frenzy at the hands of the cunning lago. He doubts the loyalty and virtue of everyone he once trusted, especially his young and trusting wife Desdemona. Although director Nescha Jelk keeps closely to the Bard’s original script, she makes bold changes; the military aspects of the play, normally kept in the background, dominate the design of the show, and the show as a whole is modernised – swords become firearms, corsets become crop-tops and although we don’t see Desdemona and Othello’s wedding in the original play, I doubt it takes place Vegas-style in a cheesy nightclub as it does in this retelling.
But the starkest change to the play is in the characterisation of Desdemona. Originally a sweet, obedient and thoroughly classical figure, the Desdemona in this re-imagining of Othello is sassy, sarcastic and very physical and not only with her husband Othello. This Desdemona fits better in the modern context – she is witty and fiery and more complex than the one-dimensional virtuous soul of Shakespeare’s creation. However, the strong changes in the character make some of the dialogue seem ill-fitting, confusing and sometimes even jarring. To see her loudly rough-housing with the soldiers in one scene and described as delicate, sweet and timid in others leaves the audience confused to say the least.
Despite these tricky contradictions, Ashton Malcolm plays the role of Desdemona confidently, and has an easy chemistry with Hazem Shammas (Othello). Shammas is a dedicated and convincing Othello, save for one fairly awkward attempt at portraying Othello’s epileptic fit. Renato Musolino (Iago) returns to the State Theatre Company stage as a fan-favourite, earning laughs for evil deeds that really should be met with boos and disapproval. The cast is excellent, and copes very well with complex dialogue, huge, complex sets and often chaotic fight scenes.
The sound, although often loud and clattering, successfully emphasises the war zone atmosphere Jelk created in the production, and the lighting was complex-yet-seamless. The set, however, is the real design triumph of the show – set designer Victoria Lamb’s stage is able to transition from a nightclub to a boardroom to a war zone with minimal blackouts, and the use of sand is a great visual effect. This set is doubtless one of the best to come from the State Theatre Company all year and is a welcome departure from the white-walled minimalism of their early shows in 2014.
Although a modernisation of a Shakespearean classic is hardly a ground-breaking idea, particularly for the State Theatre Company, Othello manages to bring something truly unique. It’s not always cohesive, but it’s bound to get the audience talking, thinking and if this performance is anything to go by, begging for more.