“Iago” begins in the depths of the Tower Theatre at The Malthouse. Six actors file into a cavernous performance space, and begin punching the air with boxing gloves. So begins this modern reworking of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” “Iago” is set in a gym, and features six performers from different cultures. Directed by Dave Kelman assisted by Naomi Rukavina and choreographed by Amy Macpherson, the play is written by Tariro Mavondo, Georgia Symons, Kelman and the cast.

It retains seven of the original “Othello” characters, renaming one (Brabantio becomes Mr Brabant), striking out a main character (Roderigo), and inflating a minor character (Bianca). Five actors play one character each, and one actor plays two (Oti Willoughby plays Cassio and Brabant). This is very much a youth production. There is a lot of raw energy coming from the characters as they work out their daily tensions and frustrations in the gym, where they all come to congregate. It is set very much in present day Melbourne and features references to Facebook.

For those of you who want to know what has happened with the characters’ relationships… well, Othello and Desdemona are simply dating here. So are Iago and Emilia. They are all similar to the original characters in “Othello” except Desdemona and Bianca. Desdemona comes across as much more savvy and quite vain. She seems little like the character from Shakespeare’s play. And Bianca is quite different, as you will see.

The play explores the theme of chauvinism. Both Desdemona and Emilia have a battle with their lovers. Oddly, though, it is Desdemona who feels she can stand up to her lover, rather than Emilia, who is the stronger of the two in “Othello.” It also explores the theme of racism, mostly through the clash between Desdemona’s father Brabant and Othello.

More than anything, it deals with the explosive energies of young adults who are growing up. In the environment of the gym a lot of testosterone is released. The women are striving to be as assertive as the men, and one, Bianca, even seems to be striving to outdo them. Meanwhile the men are competing with each other, in strength as well as in winning the girls. There is even homoerotic energy in the relationship between Iago and Othello.

Iago, played here by Legrand Andersen, is traditionally the villain of the story. He causes Othello to doubt Desdemona’s fidelity, therefore being the spark for a great deal of violence. Here he is given a back story, as a son who sees his mother suffering the effects of abuse while at the same time being neglected by her. Iago seems dead and soulless inside. He is making mischief to satisfy himself. By setting up false evidence that Desdemona is unfaithful to Othello, he enjoys toying with the lives of those around him. His main motivation is jealousy. He does lust after Desdemona, and here almost seems to lust after Othello too.

As for Othello (played by Rexson Semsi-Pelman) he is a very elemental being. Part of the concept of this show is the mixing of many different cultures in a communal space in Melbourne and the racism that brings. Reflecting that, each actor is from a different culture. Semsi-Pelman is Samoan (Andersen is Maori). Nature is very important to this Othello. So is spirituality. He seems content and fulfilled on a spiritual level, at least. His energy in itself, of course, is a natural and blameless force. The moral issue is how he channels it.

His foil is not Iago but Brabant, played by Ghanian Oti Willoughby. Brabant is the conservative father of Desdemona. He comes across as protective, intellectual and balanced. Othello’s blown-by-chance energies are not really to his taste. Willoughby also plays Cassio, a sweet young man who cannot hold his own with Iago and Othello in the gym. Lacking spirituality, he has no firm identity.
And then we have the girls- Emilia (played by Vietnamese Piper Huynh), Desdemona (Croatian Natalie Lucic) and Bianca (Sudanese Achai Deng). The first two are pretty much in thrall to their men. But Bianca is a fierce woman who is acting like a man herself. Driven by problems with others, she will not stop working out violently.

The casting is very sound. The actors are very energetic, but their diction needs improvement. Lots of the lines in this play are spoken too quickly, and when the cast speak in unison it is particularly hard to understand what they are saying.

If the characterizations really are based on “Othello,” I found them a little strange. Desdemona, traditionally sweet and lovely, is downright unlikeable, and the evolution of Emilia is a surprise. She does seem at first like Shakespeare’s Emilia- a ballsy little woman who is fiercely protective and loyal, and a forceful foil to the soft and yielding Desdemona. But she becomes soft too. Or at least, she is revealed as being so after all. Emilia confesses to tamely accepting abuse from her lover. It sounds like, if she discussed it, he might stop. But Emilia chooses to go under and not speak of her discomfort. This is totally different, I think, to how the original Emilia would have reacted.

Also Desdemona is a good foil for the titular character in “Othello.” It was odd to see her running alongside Othello and doing everything with him, in a pretty masculine environment, not to mention standing up to him. The contrast between the two of them has been taken away.

The set is monochromatic, and portrays just a gym with a couple of milk crates and a punching bag suspended from the ceiling as props. The cast are dressed in- well, what I suppose you would expect young people at the gym to be wearing. White singlets and t-shirts and black trousers. The girls are dressed flatteringly, but some components of the men’s costumes could have done with a little brushing-up. I know we’re portraying people at a gym, but it came across as a little bit shabby. The lighting was broken into two distinct recurring themes- the harsh light of the gym and the subtle red tones when characters delivered main soliloquies.

This reworking of “Othello” is a bit too complete. “Othello” has become lost. For those of you who watch it wondering how it will handle the climax, and the eventual fate of the “Othello” characters, well, none of that happens at all. The climax is modified and much milder. With this, there is the feeling that the characters will just go on as usual. I don’t know what they wanted to do with the climax. Sanitize it, perhaps? But it will come a disappointment to

Shakespeare fans who have come to watch the familiar dramatic story arc, and find it does not happen. This keeps the names of the Shakespeare characters. But I think it would have been a better idea for the company to change the names and just present this as their own story, which is what it has evolved into.