Othello @ Leichhardt Uniting Church

Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (reviewed 9 November, school matinee performance).

Passionate, intense and provocative, Othello is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s most resonant play. It covers many topical themes such as racism, domestic violence, mental health, professional jealously and anger management in the form of undiluted rage – oh the rage! – that Shakespeare loves to examine in his characters, as a caution to flawed judgement in the face of gossip. After a highly successful run of Zoom productions during the pandemic by Streamed Shakespeare, Othello lands as the perfect choice as the company’s debut live production.

Envisioned and reimagined by director Haki Pepo Olu Crisden, Othello moves away from its origins in 1500s Venice and is recontextualised in the modern world of elite sports culture. The edited and embellished script makes it more accessible to a contemporary audience. Othello, the titular character, is an African-American sports hero touring the world with his basketball team, the dashing Knights, making headlines whenever they play. This season, the newly-married Othello finally gets to meet his father-in-law, who is outraged by his daughter’s elopement, accusing Othello of false pretences and foul play (“thou hast enchanted her”). But as newlyweds, Othello and his wife Desdemona seem to be getting on splendidly, much to the chagrin and jealously of Othello’s right hand man, Iago, a spineless weasel tortured by a need to spew rumours and lies for his own sadistic pleasure.

The play covers the arc of how Iago plants a seed of doubt in Othello’s mind about Desdemona’s virtue, a seed which then grows and gnaws its way into Othello’s soul, poisoning his state of mind with a brutal urge towards violence and revenge. It’s savage, it’s tragic and – sadly – it offers plausible commentary on why women stay in abusive relationships, even when the threat of death seems very possible.

With heavyweight themes and complex characters to play, over the course of almost three hours with a text that is like origami for the tongue but still beautifully poetic, it’s an absolute pleasure to see the cast stepping up to the challenge. Sam Morell as Othello jumps right into the deep end, with his first (!) theatre performance. Wow. If there are any casting directors out there looking for a passionate up-and-coming actor who can ‘do Shakespeare like he’s playing with fire’, Morell is your man. Not only does he take on Shakespeare, but also, a lead role that plunges into the depths of mental illness. Morell also learned to play basketball for the role, doing it so convincingly by succeeding at almost every shot throughout the performance (the only one he misses is when Othello’s state of mind starts to falter). Morell gets into the guts of Othello’s character, into his heart and soul, revealing a man tortured by doubt, jealously and the need to “restore honour”. Othello clutches at flimsy evidence of Desdomana’s infidelity, not because he is an irrational person by nature going round taking slight at every misgiving, but because Iago has cleverly targeted Othello’s weak spot to turn his mind towards that possibility. A handkerchief Othello gifted to Desdomona has significant sentimental value; its emergence in another man’s possession is like a red flag awakening the raging bull within.

Julia Landrey plays Desdemona, a character Crisden embellishes to be a little older and more mature than Shakespeare’s version, and is also (in this production) a Chief Marketing Officer. That Desdemona is well-educated, articulate and a successful career woman who has agency over her big life decisions (by eloping with Othello, for instance), makes an interesting point that women who are empowered can still be victims of domestic violence. The qualities that makes Othello fall in love with Desdemona are also the sinister reasons that are misconstrued against her; Iago reasons “she deceived her own father, why wouldn’t she deceive you?”, to which Othello replies “that is true”.

Landrey navigates Desdemona’s torment and trial-by-twisted-facts with such raw vulnerability that I was crying right along when she was begging Othello to see reason, implying through her tears for ‘the old Othello to come back’. She even stoops to make an appeal to Iago to interject in some way, down on her knees holding his hands in desperation, but he just looks on with cold indifference. So many things about Desdemona’s scenes hit a nerve on a very deep personal level.

As for Iago…there isn’t enough vitriol in the world to describe his empty soul, a character so corrupted by moral turpitude. Like the aforementioned players, Iago is a character not that far removed from reality; he is that two-faced friend who will pretend to like you but then turn around and stab you in the back (literally, in this case). Chad Traupmann playing the role of Iago clearly relishes the ‘honey and syrup’ of Shakespeare’s text, perhaps inspired by his experiences of climbing the corporate ladder dotted with snakes and ‘Iago types’. Wherever he gets his inspiration from, Traupmann shines on stage in the same way a camera loves a face.

The staging at Leichhardt Uniting Church is low-key and sparse, with a black curtained background and grey carpeting framing the stage, and props brought in and out of scenes as needed, including a basketball ring and a bed. A large screen above the stage displays interpolated video throughout the performance, inspired by The Portrait of Dorian Gray at Seymour Centre. It’s impactful, particularly Iago’s ‘Big Brother’ appearance and a montage of allusions to lust and sexual jealously flooding Othello’s mind. The off-stage fighting in one scene using sound effects is also an interesting choice, it adds dynamism and drama to a word-heavy play prone to becoming static with endless poetic exposition (that’s Shakespeare for you!)

That said, a few budget-friendly tweaks may help to finesse the stagecraft. Crimson satin sheets would be an advantage in lieu of ordinary red cotton sheets messily tucked in. Aesthetic precision and boldness of colour elevates a play when it matches the energy of the actors. Accordingly, the use of crimson red could have pervaded a little more throughout the scenes, as a motif to blood and passion.

The lighting briefly interchanges with red during Othello’s meltdown. Perhaps there is potential to add shadows, or spotlights that fade slowly into blackouts, to elevate the atmosphere and mood of Shakespeare’s world where characters hide and connive in dark places. The sound of foreboding wind is a great sound effect; some mood lighting would have helped to create a greater sense of intimacy and entrapment.

Thirdly, the open and airy staging means the words sometimes seem to ‘float away’, particularly for people in the back row. The opening lines didn’t quite land; more vocal push and consideration to the conflict in the scene would have helped to make the opening much stronger.

Given that it is Streamed Shakespeare’s very first live production out of the box, there’s no doubt the boundaries of creativity will be pushed even further as time goes on. With innovation and authentic truth telling at its core, Othello is a confronting and challenging play that finds a connection with the audience through fantastic acting and collaborative direction. It raises many, many questions about what we choose to believe and how we choose to respond to it, which isn’t just a theatrical, intellectual discourse, but could literally save a life when considered in everyday situations.

This production is also highly recommended as an exciting educational opportunity for schools searching for innovative and generous programs to introduce students to Shakespeare*.

Othello presented by Streamed Shakespeare is playing at Leichhardt Uniting Church till 18 November 2023. For tickets and showtimes, go to https://www.trybooking.com/events/landing/1080102

For a behind-the-scenes podcast interview with the actors and artistic director of Othello, go to https://sydneytheatrereviews.com/interviews/

*Note: the school matinee performance omitted explicit material not suitable for young audiences.

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