November 19, 2014

Master touch of evil

by William Shakespeare
State Theatre Company SA
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
Duration 2 hours 50 minutes with interval.
November 18. Tickets $ 26 – $ 67
Bookings : BASS 131 246 or
Until November 30.

“I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at; ” says Iago, the devious villain of Othello, “I am not what I am.” While the play pivots on the words ‘honest’ and ‘honesty’ (they appear 52 times, half of them used by Iago about himself ) the reality is one of escalating credulity and deception. Taken at his word, honest Iago is the unimpeachable witness, and it is Othello’s unblinking trust, and the iron logic he builds from that, which proves so catastrophically lethal.

In this excellent State Theatre production, director Nescha Jelk understands and intensifies this narrative mechanism, reminding us of the simple but dramatically powerfully premise on which it operates. Opening in Venice with a wedding celebration complete with mirror ball, Desdemona in Doc Martens and Roderigo in a hoodie, this version has scenes in Cyprus looking like Operation Desert Storm, strongly capturing the military setting and the close bond Othello has with his men, including the scheming Iago.

Victoria Lamb’s striking design uses a small proscenium stage with spangly curtains for Act One but expands to inhabit the full cavernous extent of the Dunstan stage, covered in sand with low movable platforms for chamber scenes. The always-inventive Geoff Cobham, bathes the action with shadowy side lights, powerful down-spots and delectable creamy tints, and when Iago contrives the death of Rodrigo, he switches on a night vision device, the better for us to see his villainy. The commanding score and soundscape by Jason Sweeney, using fanfares of feedback guitar and pulsing bass notes, is sparingly used and artfully incorporated.

Moving away from the African notion of the Moor, Nescha Jelk has cast Palestinian-born actor Hazem Shammas as Othello and the result is compelling and rekindles the text. Shammas is affable, unruffled, and magnanimous in the opening scenes, such that his decline into jealous rage is mortifying. When he falls to the ground in an epileptic fit, Iago, splendidly interpreted by Renato Musolino, entwines him like a serpent.

Desdemona, played with ditzy charm by Ashton Malcolm, is a lively take on the virtuous heroine and her scenes with Elena Carapetis, also first-rate as Amelia, are touchingly vivid. The cast is evenly strong – Charles Mayer as Ludovico, Chris Pitman as Brabantio, James Smith and Taylor Wiese as Roderigo and Cassio.

But the key role is Iago, and Renato Musolino, with a hail-fellow East London accent, insinuates himself among the soldiers with reptilian ease. It is a great performance, a blend of the serial killer Dexter and a medieval vice figure, and as he confides his fiendish plans to the audience, he is a master study in plausible evil.

Murray Bramwell

“Master touch of evil”, The Australian, November 20, 2014, p.16.

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