Othello photo (c) The Bacchanals

by william shakespeare

Modern Othello on the mark

In a warehouse loft with no set, with actors wearing street clothes and using their own vocal intonations, this is an Othello that gets everything that really matters right.
            The director's programme note sets out admirable goals, including an approach to text and voices with which I am in total sympathy, and the company mostly achieves them.
            The intimacy of the location, which seats about 60, helps in the vocal department. Many of these young actors would have had a tougher job fulfilling the aim of a natural speech pattern in a larger venue where declamatory necessity might have undermined them. But in this place it worked.
            Among recent Shakespearean productions this distinguishes itself because almost all the actors seem to have complete understanding of what they are saying and project their characters accordingly. The result is a Shakespeare easy to comprehend.
            Few of the young cast are actors whom you would necessarily think of in these roles. Taika Cohen, known more for his humorous qualities, isn't the most obvious Othello. It's hard to envisage him as a military general, yet, as jealousy invades Othello's sanity, he's frighteningly believable. This is responded to equally well by Rebecca Lawrence's Desdemona who, once I came to terms with her and the play's accents generally, reveals goodness of character along with incomprehension and fear. Iago (Carey Smith) needs to develop more of the gleeful and malevolent aspect of his character's evil, but you clearly see how Iago takes everyone in.
            While the production deliberately avoids a concept, I found that forgetting the original military setting and imagining it in a more modern situation made the acting styles easier to accept as the aspects of jealousy and power, which are at the play's heart, are well-realized.
            Action scenes are well-staged and the final scenes, from Desdemona's bluesy Willow Song till her murder, are given with all the horror due to them.
            Producing company The Bacchanals say their philosophy is grounded in the ideals of Poor Theatre. So they eschew production values and this Othello may not suit everyone. But to hear a Shakespeare play that isn't one of the usual suspects, spoken with real meaning as if it could be happening right now is good enough for me.
- Timothy O'Brien, The Dominion

Speedy Othello about ordinary people

A long time ago I survived a 3½-hour production at the Opera House of Romeo and Juliet which Shakespeare said should take "two hours' traffic of our stage". I have sat through lengthy Lears and Hamlets but never have I sat through so speedy a production of a Shakespearian tragedy as David Lawrence's Othello for the Bacchanals theatre group.
            Performed in an attic apartment in Marion St which could at a pinch seat about 50, without the encumbrance of scenery except Desdemona's bed, it fair bowls along. The instant one scene ends the next starts.
            Costumes are street clothes, lighting and sound effects are kept to an absolute minimum and the stage is a small rectangular space between two facing sets of seats.
            This Grotowski-like "poor theatre" places a huge burden on the actors. The big, special Shakespearian voice, the grand gestures and the pointing of a line or speech become irrelevant when the audience is so close.
            The problem is that the language was written to be spoken in a larger space than a room. And while its intensity can still hold an audience the "sound" of lines such as "Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur, / Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!" is needed to give them their full emotional force.
            The cast of Othello speak their lines with understanding and at great speed. At times, however, they are so fast it all becomes a bit of a gabble. Occasionally they fail to remember that the closeness of the audience isn't a reason not to project or enunciate what is not, even in Shakespeare's time, everyday speech.
            Nevertheless, the actors throw themselves with a will into the play and some interesting ideas about the play emerge. Carey Smith's Iago is the least villainous Iago I have seen and a much more frightening and believable "demi-devil" than is usual.
            Taika Cohen first appears as Othello, not toying with a rose as Laurence Olivier did but smoking a cigarette. A thick metal chain around his neck is the only sign of military office and his description of Othello's wooing of Desdemona is wonderfully matter-of-fact and understated. Sitting only about 2m from him, I flinched when he committed suicide.
            There are solid performances from James Stewart as Roderigo (despite a silly beard when he goes into disguise), Phil Grieve as Brabantio, Alex Greig as Cassio, Rebecca Lawrence as Desdemona and Eve Middleton as Emilia. What I will remember of this production, apart from its speed, is that Othello is not about grand, distant figures but about ordinary people.
- Laurie Atkinson, The Evening Post

Where every word hangs on how well it's delivered

Given the "poor theatre" approach The Bacchanals bring to their salon production of Othello - staged in the living space of a post-student flat with rag-bag clothes, no set as such, minimal lighting and simple ive music - everything hangs on how well its cast delivers the text.
            Taking their cue from Hamlet's advice to the Players, the cast members do indeed speak their speeches "trippingly on the tongue." Speed, it seems, is of the essence, which at least gets us through the virtually uncut text in about two and a half hours (the BBC TV version is heavily cut and reputedly takes four hours).
            Some literally trip over their syllables. Others do not "stand upon points," riding their speeches "like a rough colt; [they know] not the stop," rendering their speeches incomprehensible. Two or three are very clear. But all of them have a thoroughly intelligent understanding of their words and actions, and it is this that holds our interest and communicates the story.
            Their avowed intention is to use their own voices (and avoid the "Shakespearean voice"), chatting naturally, as if this contrived, convoluted and often obscure blank verse was everyday speech. By and large it works, especially given the intimate venue.
            Taika Cohen's Othello is as laid-back and minimalist as Laurence Olivier's was florid and demonstrative. Where Olivier explored the full depth and breadth of Moorish blood and passion, Cohen opts for "the nature whom passion could not shake." He's one of the boys and not one to make a public spectacle of his love for Desdemona (Rebecca Lawrence). When the work of jealousy gnaws his guts its progress to outward expression is as subtle as it is sure. The outcome is frighteningly real. Lawrence gives us a Desdemona who is intelligent, humane and trusting without being too naïve.
            Carey Smith's Iago seems real from moment to moment but despite his intellectual and verbal clarity, there is a strange lack of emotional structure or psychological coherence. Maybe he's thinking sociopath rather than manic depressive. Because this production tells us these extraordinary events can overtake ordinary events, I look for the turning point where Iago realizes he's out of his depth and has to up the ante to lethal levels just to survive and protect himself. If the actor and director have located that point, they've kept it to themselves.
            The Bacchanals are mostly post-graduate drama students with quite a lot of experience in student, co-op and professional theatre. In applauding their stated commitment to "exploring text-based theatre" according to "the ideals of poor theatre", I challenge them to lift their game.
            One of the cornerstones of poor theatre is that the actors are their own instruments and it is the creative way they work with the text that provides all the "production values".
- John Smythe, National Business Review

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