The Othello opening night audience at Melbourne’s Globe Pop-up theatre adored this production and the cast was ecstatically applauded at the conclusion of the evening’s performance. The eager groundlings, being so close to the action on stage, were entertained constantly throughout whilst the ‘elevated’ people in the galleries chuckled along as they viewed proceedings from their vantage points.
The groundlings were certainly in the firing line. They were sprayed with water and droplets of stage blood. They were coaxed and yelled at plus pushed from side to side with the actors’ entrances and exits, just how we believe it all happened centuries ago at the Globe during Shakespeare’s time. Now here in Melbourne, it is our turn; good theatrical entertainment for a bargain ticket price of $20.
This rendition of Shakespeare’s great Jacobean tragedy is less filled with heavy pathos and more filled with feisty, loud and bold action.
The story of Othello is a tale of a Moor, a foreigner in his adopted Italy. A valiant and noble man whose dark-skinned appearance is incongruent with the status he holds among the nobles of the Venetian community – xenophobia is a key theme in this play. His ensign, Iago tricks Othello into believing his newly wedded wife has committed adultery with Cassio, the man his wife would have married if she followed the more conventional path society demanded. Iago goes to great lengths to cunningly plant seeds in his master’s head that he has become an obvious cuckold. There are many reasons why Iago turns on his master. Othello is driven mad with jealously and the story is brought to a horrifically tragic end. The term, green-eyed monster was coined by Shakespeare.
Haakon Smestad portrayed Iago’s duplicitous nature with bravado. Smestad clearly had strong technique and control over Iago’s 1,088 lines – the character in the Shakespeare canon with the most lines after Hamlet. The tone of his soliloquies was not as saturnine as you come to expect but they were effortlessly delivered and had the requisite villainous motivation. Smestad’s rendering of Iago was more that of a demonical swashbuckling pirate (his costume certainly gave this impression) rather than a weasel and a physically unappealing man. This is a refreshing interpretation. His vanity and self-admiring posturing were conveyed with Smestad’s wide expressive face and tall commanding stature.
Regan Taylor’s Othello for the most part was an angry bear with a sore head. He shifted convincingly from a cuddly somewhat free spirited lover earlier in the play to a crazed cuckold. His tragic action at the play’s end drew silence from the audience and it was a moment of ghastly consequence.
Taylor’s anguish and fury were palpable and it was easy to digest the fact that Iago could dupe him so easily. This is because Taylor conveyed the self-loathing and baggage that is a huge part of Othello’s personality. Othello realises that as a foreigner society looks upon him as exotic yet dangerous and someone to be suspicious of which is sadly still a common covert assumption in our times. “Haply, for I am black/ and have not the soft parts of conversation.” Taylor brings this to the surface with his focus and strong acting skills and adds the depth to Othello’s character.
A nice touch was to add to the production lines delivered in Maori. A nod to the very first pop-up Globe venture in Auckland, New Zealand, Taylor and Romaita Fox (Emilia) conversed momentarily in Maori again showing how far removed Othello was to the conventions of his adopted society and how isolated he felt as his life began to collapse around him within this foreign land.
Jasmine Blackborow’s Desdemona was a treat. She captured all the innocence yet strong intelligence of the character as she faced deception and her demise. Kieran Mortell’s Roderigo was a crowd pleaser. His annoying and cloying nature and his stints of drunkenness brought much humour to this very serious tale of deceit. He played to the crowd with great confidence.
The six or so main characters of this tightly constructed play have their work cut out for them; there are no subplots or diversionary scenes. The ensemble works very hard and balances the tragic circumstance with the cruel and violent action that we would recognise as commedia dell’arte style where all that motivates is money and sex. This is an appealing aspect of this production and one among many good reasons the cast received such heartfelt applause at curtain down.