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Rodney Afif, David Trednick, Not What I am, Othello Retold Rodney Afif, David Trednick, Not What I am, Othello Retold
photo Ponch Hawkes
IT’S COMMON FOR THOSE SEEKING NEW AND VITAL MODES OF PERFORMANCE TO DECRY THE SLAVISH VENERATION AFFORDED THE ‘CLASSICS’—TO MOAN ABOUT THE WAYS IN WHICH NEW VOICES ARE DROWNED OUT BY THE INCESSANT BABBLE OF SAME-OLD SAME-OLD SHAKESPEARES AND IBSENS AND VARIOUS GREEK FELLOWS. I’M ONE OF THESE CRITICS, I’LL CONFESS—AN UNKNOWN QUANTITY WILL LIKELY PIQUE MY INTEREST MORE THAN ANOTHER ROUND WITH BRECHT, GENET, EVEN LOVELY MR PINTER. BUT I’VE ALSO REALISED THE CURIOUS PARADOX OF THIS POSITION: CANONICAL TEXTS ARE MORE FREQUENTLY TREATED WITH DISRESPECT THAN NEWER WORKS.

For better or worse, many directors seem far more comfortable messing about with tired old plays than they are with fresh and unknown ones, and this isn’t just at the level of independent theatre. Benedict Andrews’ Sydney Theatre Company production of Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla is exemplary. Andrews worked both with and against White’s grand and imposing text to produce a very layered, ironic response. It’s less often that one encounters the same kind of treatment—of questioning, of interrogating or deconstructing—when we see a director handling a hot new work from an emerging writer.

The Eleventh Hour’s mission is to revitalise classics, and they do this as well as—if not better than—any other company in Australia. They don’t simply dress up old plays, or use them as vehicles for an alternative agenda. For company directors Anne Thompson and William Henderson, the works of Shakespeare, Beckett or Wilde endure for a reason, but this doesn’t mean that their job is simply to present the most faithful production of each possible. Instead, they tease apart their source material to reveal the intricate complexities holding each text together.

Their most ambitious endeavour so far has been their recent production, Not What I Am—Othello Retold. Here, Thompson’s direction saw the bard’s iconic play unravelled to its barest threads and rewoven into a performance work both redolent of the original and utterly other. The greatest testament to the work’s success was in the way Othello Retold regularly blurred presentation and interpretation—one often had to ask “was that in the original play and I’ve always missed it, or is it something new?”

This occurs most obviously in a kind of hyper-sexualisation of the play. When characters aren’t actually fucking each other they’re groping, fondling or kissing, often while conversing with others. It’s an uncanny approach to the erotics of Othello—laying bare the sexual jealousy at the work’s core and therefore making its audience search harder for other subtexts. Then again, by emphasising a heightened carnality in the work, one can’t be sure how much is simply drawing from Shakespeare’s play and how much has been added to it.

Rodney Afif’s Othello is a Middle-Eastern military man driven to murder by the racist machinations of Venetian society. His tragedy unfolds in a nightmarish city of unstable boundaries—Julie Renton’s magnificent design of floating walls transforms itself in an instant— and a shadowy, cloaked chorus represents the invisible society looking to bring about the Moor’s destruction.

Afif’s Othello, though set upon, is not merely the noble hero driven to madness by a cruel world, however. He is far more human—angry and confused, unable to properly articulate his fear and finally revealing a savagery that can’t wholly be the result of his torments. He is a deeply ambiguous character, both victim and perpetrator of violence, and this sophisticated portrayal denies any easy conclusions.

As Iago, David Trendinnick provides an excellent foil—a lascivious and ultimately pitiable wreck of a being, a monster worthy of contempt, not fear. Shelly Lauman’s Desdemona is of a less subtle hue but still evokes the sympathy necessary to instil a growing sense of horror as events take their inevitable turn.

There may be a little too much going on in this production. It’s so fertile as to at times overwhelm with significance, and the result is a dreamlike, kaleidoscopic experience of a story seemingly done to death. Just how a classic should be.

Red Stitch Actors Theatre occupy the opposite end of the spectrum—you won’t find many classics in its half-decade history. The company is more concerned with producing the works you haven’t seen, and presenting to Melbourne the best international (and, increasingly, local) plays available. Red Stitch is primarily an actors’ company, and as a consequence, the imperative is often to do a play justice, rather than to problematise it. For better, again, or worse. When the company gets it right, the results are, on occasion, stunning. Motortown fits this category. The play was completed by UK writer Simon Stephens in only four days—hardly encouraging—but is possessed of an unexpected depth and rigour superbly realised in Red Stitch’s final production of 2007.

Like Othello, Motortown’s central character is a military man coming home and coming undone. Danny returns to England after a tour of duty in Iraq. His attempts to reconnect with a woman he had once briefly dated reveal his nostalgic delusions about the past; her rebukes see him purchasing a handgun and seeking out some kind of revenge against the world he has returned to.

The play is composed of a series of vignettes, mostly duologues, in which Danny encounters another example of hell on his home turf. He is a barely contained bottle of rage, but this is slowly revealed through conversations with his disabled brother, his put-upon ex-lover, a local shopkeeper and a London low-life. Danny’s world, like Othello’s, gives him no space to speak his hatred and fear, and he ends up exploding violence upon an innocent woman. Or doesn’t: where Shakespeare uses violence to conclude tragedy, the bloody climax of Stephens’ work occurs at its centre, and its affective aftershock is the work’s triumph.

Motortown doesn’t simply end with Very Bad Things as the inevitable outcome of a society’s misdeeds. There’s no cathartic conclusion before we go home to bed—Danny’s miserable existence continues as rich swingers abuse him, home life doesn’t improve and his self-loathing only grows.

Director Laurence Strangio is no stranger to experimentation; his longstanding collaborations with Caroline Lee have proven his abilities to reconstruct literary classics with a keen and unwavering hand. Here, though, he has demonstrated the worth of staying true to a work’s essence, of finding the ideal register that causes a play to resonate long beyond its final note. Find the right play, and you’ve created a new classic.


The Eleventh Hour, Not What I Am: Othello Retold, from William Shakespeare’s Othello, director Anne Thompson, performers Rodney Afif, Shelly Lauman, David Trendinnick, Jane Nolan, Stuart Orr, Greg Ulfan; designer Julie Renton, lighting designer Kick Pajanti, composer Wally Gunn; The Eleventh Hour Theatre, Melbourne, Dec 1-15, 2007; Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Motortown, writer Simon Stephens, director Laurence Strangio, performers Richard Bligh, Brett Cousins, Cleopatra Coleman, Verity Charlton, Dion Mills, Sarah Sutherland and David Whitely, designer Peter Mumford, lighting designer Richard Vabre; Red Stitch Actors Theatre, St Kilda. Nov 21-Dec 22, 2007

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 35

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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