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Thursday, 15 August 2013

Othello: Starring... The Set

Othello, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
Designed by Julie Fox, Michael Walton (lighting), ThomasRyder Payne (sound)

The Story: In secret and against her father's wishes, the young and beautiful Venetian Desdemona marries Othello, a military general and Moor. At once at odds with society for their match, the couple also falls prey to Othello's ensign Iago, who swears to and plots a revenge so complete that it will lead to more deaths than that of his leader.
Bethany Jilliard as Desdemona and Dion Johnstone as Othello.
Photo by Michael Cooper.
This is a fine production of Othello, a difficult play that is riddled with contradictions. But. The director, Chris Abraham, could have chosen to highlight a race issue which would have been apt for the Elizabethan setting as the word "Moor" in Elizabethan times was as insulting as the "N" word is in modern times. He could have created a religious conflict between a Muslim Othello and the Christian Venetian society, which would have resonance today. He could have forged a link to PTSD in conveying military career men who cannot cope with domestic civility. He did none of these things nor anything else to deliver a gut-punch to the audience.

Well, he did one thing. He hired Julie Fox as his designer, who created a set that looked deceptively simple - at first. Two walls, a raked square of a stage set at a diamond angle, basked in blood-red paint and light. Simple. Until the diamond turns on edge or in full-circle and the walls open and close to reveal empty space or stairs, becoming a courtyard, a stable, a bridge, a chapel, a Doge's palace... and falls of fabric turn the space into a tent, a bedchamber, a picture frame, a ship tossed in a stormy sea.  Combined with the Caravaggio-like lighting of Michael Walton, the Japanese Puzzle-Box set nearly recreates a thrust-stage on a proscenium, but it competes with the actors for the audience's attention - it is brilliant and fantastic and bizarrely gorgeous and perhaps a tad too much so. And although it is used in innovative moments of staging, when one finds oneself watching the set morph instead of listening to the end of a soliloquy, or looking for the designer during the show's curtain call, it is probably not the best thing for the production as a whole.

Graham Abbey as Iago and Dion Johnstone as Othello.
Photo by Michael Cooper.
The lead actors may not command that particular stage, but none of them are exactly slouches, and each one has moments of pure power. Dion Johnstone, adopting an exotic accent to add to Othello's "otherness", conveys both the charmer and the general equally well; he and Bethany Jilliard (as Desdemona) seem truly a team in the earliest parts of the play, as do he and Graham Abbey (as Iago) later on when Othello chooses to believe his soldier over his wife - even though we know one is a viper and one is being duped, the tableau set at the end of the first half would suggest an action-hero buddy movie. But in fact, Mr. Abbey's Iago underestimates this Othello's physical power as he is literally thrown to the floor and pinned - just as Mr. Johnstone's Othello is no match for this Iago's egomaniacal brain.

Deborah Hay as Emilia and Bethany Jilliard as Desdemona.
Photo by Michael Cooper.
The casting of the four leads is perfectly balanced, to tell the truth.  Ms. Jilliard's Desdemona looks as beautiful and as fragile as a porcelain doll, but it is with intelligence and dignity and that she argues her points, and with spirit as she fights for her life in a truly appalling death scene (kudos to fight director John Stead, it was horrifically realistic - I was not the only audience member to look away). She conveys true tenderness to Othello, and an obedience that modern women may find hard to accept.

Her handmaiden Emilia is played by Deborah Hay. An enigmatic character, since Emilia both loves her mistress and conceals vitally important information from her, Ms. Hay shows a somewhat modest and rueful Emilia, slightly afraid of her husband, Iago. It is as she realizes her husband is the root of the evil that Ms. Hay unleashes Emilia's very righteous rage, giving full, burning voice to the injustice and murderous plot the audience has witnessed all along.

Fine as they are, however, neither they nor the others in the company can command that marvelous set, and this creates a strange - yet interesting - dichotomy for the viewer.  It may not deliver the impact of a more modern interpretation, but Chris Abraham's production tells the story clearly with a strong leading team of actors, and that (plus that set!) means it should be on your list to see this summer.

Othello continues in repertory until October 19th at the Avon Theatre. 

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