Theatre review: Othello

A daring trilingual iteration of the classic tragedy is set between Cairns and the Torres Strait.

Shakespeare’s plays have long been re-imagined and placed in innovative settings. Nothing new in that, except not all of these alternative epochs and mythical locations make for satisfying theatre.

This daring retelling, adapted by Jimi Bani and directed by Jason Klarwein, pulls out all stops. It’s tri-lingual (Kala Lagaw Ya, Yumpla Tok and English) and by merging Wagadagam and Shakespearean cultures the action is played out somewhere between Cairns and the Torres Strait. 

Featured is the heroic Torres Straight Infantry Battalion established to defend the northern tip of Australia during World War II. The soundtrack of America’s big band music, especially the Glenn Miller Band, and Wagadagam music sparkles. Brady Watkins, the composer-cum-sound designer’s skilful contribution is not only refreshing but references Klarwein’s brisk military vibe; the cast is always on the move. 

Encompassing such diverse cultures makes for a heady often thrilling mix. The visceral war dance by Othello and three other Torres Strait soldiers is a highlight, as are the crooned serenades accompanied by whispered rippling guitar. These musical insertions brokered ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from beyond the stage. The supportive crowd fanned the drama with jeers, cheers, whoops of delight and even captions.

When the newly-weds kiss, someone called out ‘nice’. And when Desdemona, embodied by Emily Burton, who exudes a contemporary, bracing spirit endures a prolonged strangulation, a chilling act of domestic violence, the tension was diffused by a man who bellowed, ‘game over’

Iago’s devious plan to ruin Othello’s marriage and him in the process, by slut-shaming Desdemona, casts doubt in Othello’s receptive mind. Desdemona’s devotion is defiled by the vindictive Iago, played here by Andrew Buchanan. His Iago doesn’t slink or creep about but springs and sprints across the stage in army boots, athletically charged by evil intention.

Desdemona’s joyful appreciation of her new husband, despite the doom and gloom of Brabantio her father (insightfully captured by Eugene Gilfedder), is brave and true. 

Jim Bani is a powerful Othello. It’s a role that’s captured the imagination of audiences for centuries because of the play’s unflinching dissection of obsessional jealousy that ignites at the flimsiest suspicion. Shakespeare posed psychological trauma way beyond his time and this interpretation amplifies that. Bani probes Othello’s insecurities about his identity and his character. In marrying Desdemona, he’s punched above his weight.

Iago’s revelations about her trysts with handsome Cassio (Benjin Maza) ring true. If only Othello talked to Desdemona about Iago’s accusations? But instead, his doubt enables the sociopathic Iago to twist a razor-sharp knife in his dreams and rip them into shreds. Rage and jealousy fuel Othello’s actions. He’s quick to judge Desdemona without exploring her point of view. 

Visually, there’s a watery presence in which the majority of the cast are frequently drenched but it’s mostly used to good, sometimes magical effect. Richard Roberts’ design is simple yet supports the plot with a judicious use of moveable props. 

Read: Theatre review: The Great Australian Play

The willing cast invests in the play’s arc. Thankfully, Sarah Odgen portrays a believably gutsy Emilia who champions Desdemona and is the voice of reason. There are cluttered, untidy moments – purists stay well away – but these are insignificant in such a compelling production in which action rules and the bard’s poetic chest-beating takes a back seat. 

Queensland Theatre Company
Bille Browne Studio
Adapted by Jimi Bani and Jason Klarwein
Director: Jason Klarwein

Set DesignerRichard Roberts
Costume Designers: Simona Cosentini, Simone Tesorieri
Lighting Designer: Ben Hughes
Composer/Sound Designer: Brady Watkins
Fight Consultant: Nigel Poulton
Voice Coach: Megan Shorey
Stage Manager: Grant Gravener
Assistant Stage Manager: Katherine Crocker

Fight ConsultantNigel Poulton
Voice Coach: Megan Shorey

Cast: Jimi Bani, Richard Bani, Andrew Buchanan, Emily Burton, Eugene Gilfedder, Kevin Hides, Benjin Maza, Matt McInally, Sarah Ogden, Tia-Shonté Southwood, Conwell Bani, Gabriel Bani
Tickets: $39-$94

Othello will be performed until 1 October 2022.

Gillian Wills is an author and arts writer who has published with ArtsHub, Australian Stage Online, Limelight, Griffith Review, Australian Book Review, The Australian, Weekend Review, Good Reading, The Strad (UK) Cut Common, Loudmouth and Artist Profile. Her short stories have been published with Dillydoun Review, Antonym, Dewdrop, Unbelievable Stories and Hare’s Paw Literary Journal. Her memoir, Elvis and Me: how a world-weary musician and a broken racehorse rescued each other, Finch Pty was released in 2016 in Australia, America, Canada, The UK and NZ.