‘Othello’ may have been written by William Shakespeare, but this exciting adaptation, a WA Premiere, is being presented by WA’s Upstart Theatre each evening at 7.30 pm until Saturday 24th January. This two and a half hour production is suitable for mature audiences. The venue is the Packenham Street Art Space, 22 Pakenham Street, in Fremantle. It was an old wool store, but it has had a new floor and smart new toilets fitted.
In previous years, the Upstart Theatre Company has given us memorable plays such as ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ as it was meant to be seen, raw and in the round, with the audience literally moving around. Here, the audience are seated for the whole show.
The set is simple, comprising various sized pine boxes. The lighting is almost ‘as available’, but this seemed perfectly acceptable. The costumes are dark blue vests for the lower class and soldiers, with white shirts and shorts for the nobility. There are no scene changes, the action simply moves from one area to another.
The year is 1915. Singing ‘Once a jolly swagman’ a Venetian army of soldiers enter the auditorium.
In a corner, an argument is taking place between the rich, but irresponsible, Roderigo (Ben Wilkinson) and Othello’s twenty-eight years old, standard-bearer, Iago (Patrick Downes). It appears that extremely jealous Roderigo is angry as he has given Iago money to arrange his engagement to the determined and self-possessed, Desdemona (Maja Liwszyc) but has not yet won her.
Desdemona’s father, Brabanzio (Garreth Bradshaw), is a loud-mouthed and arrogant senator, who feels betrayed when he finds Othello (Maitland Schnaars), has secretly married his daughter and taken her to Cyprus. Army hero Othello, is a caring, well-respected man but because of his age and race (he is a Christian Moor – a black man), tends to be vulnerable and gullible. To make things worse, Othello has given the post of lieutenant to a fledgling soldier, handsome Michael Cassio (Geordie Crawley) and not Iago. Iago is furious so tells Brabanzio that Othello has actually kidnapped his daughter. Brabanzio is frantic and accuses Othello of witchcraft.
When Brabanzio discovers that Othello is meeting the Duke of Venice (Tegan Mulvany), he decides to accuse and embarrass Othello in front of all the politicians. Surprisingly, when Othello explains how he really courted Desdemona the senate are very sympathetic. Desdemona confirms her love for Othello. Later, the Governor of Cyprus, Montano (Garreth Bradshaw) and several others go to the harbour to meet Othello. As they wait, Cassio clasps Desdemona’s hand. The cunning and conniving bigot, Iago, spots them. When Roderigo again challenges this heinous villain, he decides to implicate Cassio as being one of Desdemona’s lovers. On hearing this, poor Othello suffers tremendous mental anguish.
That night, Cassio is slipped a Mickey Finn by Iago, and becomes extremely drunk before starting a fight with Roderigo. Cassio, who is subsequently stripped of his rank by Othello, stabs Montano. Iago convinces Cassio that by manipulating Desdemona, he will gain Othello’s favour; but in the soliloquy that follows, Iago explains how he intends to frame Cassio and Desdemona as lovers. Desdemona finds Othello feeling unwell. She offers him her handkerchief but lets it drop to the floor. Her maid, Iago’s wife, Emilia (Tegan Mulvany) picks up the handkerchief and gives it to Iago. This handkerchief, planted in Cassio’s room, is found by a Cyprian harlot, Bianca (Kat Shaw), who has Cassio as a much-loved ‘punter’.
Desdemona arrives with Brabanzio’s kinsman, Lodovico (Chris Ratcliffe) who is carrying a letter calling Othello home and re-instating Cassio. Othello is shattered by the news.
With Iago’s cunning and Othello’s depression, can there be any hope for the love and marriage of Othello and Desdemona?
This is a fast moving play, presented by a company that always gives more than expected. The director is the well-respected Perth actor and comedian, Paul ‘Werzel’ Montague. The cast have captured the full depth of their characters, and with so much trickery, duplicity and passion this is essential. Although every actor was very good, Patrick Downes as Iago really proved to be outstanding – a truly nasty bit of stuff.
The director often had his actors performing straight to individual audience members, in Iago’s case, his shifty eyes really sent a shiver down the spine as he plotted his miserable schemes. Desdemona and Emilia had a wonderfully warm relationship that ended in genuine tears as their lovers cheated and lied.
Othello’s love for Desdemona could be seen in their eyes and the tragedy that ensued was tangible, as Iago’s lies became enacted. Plenty of action, packed with emotion – wonderful performances all around.
Powerful voices were often called for, but in the large open space of this theatre space, the odd reverberation distorted some lines of dialogue. This experienced cast soon learnt that good volume control gave a much better delivery.
There were a few laughs, songs to lighten the brutal tale. This is a play that is rarely performed, but even people that had no idea of the story thoroughly enjoyed the riveting performance. Most enjoyable.