Shakespeare’s Othello is undoubtedly one of the trickiest plays in his canon for playmakers and audeinces to wrap their contemporary worldviews around. In a supposedly post-racial, post-feminist society, we are confronted by a piece that shines a light on our still-prevalent racism and misogyny. Shakespeare gave the world a minefield in Othello, one that appears quite difficult to tread with our modern “enlightened” views, but it’s precisely this challenge that compels the bravest of theatre folk to try their hand at it. Certainly the actors who take on the show’s title character must have an innate fearlessness to inhabit the complex role. Actor Ray Chong Nee has risen to this challenge and is currently touring the country in Bell Shakespeare‘s production as the infamous Moor. We spoke to him about how he and the creators of the show have dealt with Shakespeare’s centuries-old curveballs.
“The good thing about playing Othello is that there are current situations in our political and social climates that the themes inside the play reflect. So in that regard, it’s starting conversations, getting people to talk about things such as race, domestic violence, otherness, people from different cultures, refugees etc. From my perspective as an actor, it’s a meaty role; there’s so much in it. Every time I’m on stage, something that I hadn’t considered will come out of a moment, in talking to an actor or watching the other actors on stage. It’s quite beautiful to be surprised every time. And we hope it continues,” Chong Nee says.
Bell Shakespeare often gives us the unconventional, unexpected Shakespeare; their interpretations of the classical scripts go against the grain and force us to reconsider the characters we’ve long been familiar with. Chong Nee says, “Othello’s a challenging character because the perceptions about him are varied. There are purists who want him performed in a certain way. Same with Iago, there are people who want Iago to be evil. Just evil. What we’re trying to do is make these two characters human. Very human. So in playing these characters, there are moment-by-moment responses which are really hard to nail. If you don’t nail it then the work starts to crumble. It’s so challenging, but I get to challenge myself to make those moments happen.
“Another area of difficulty for me is delving into my own history so I can reach the emotions that I need to reach. It’s hard going into those dark places that you’ve sort of shut off for a while,” he says. And it can’t be easy for a professed feminist to portray the worst kind of domestic abuser, but he says he, his stage partner Elizabeth Nabben (Desdemona), and director Peter Evans were determined to make sure the female voice is as strong as it can be. They sought advice from Jane Montgomery Griffiths, an academic who not only has been studying Greek theatre for thirty years, but who also has a very extensive performance career.
“We asked her, ‘From your viewpoint, how should we traverse this territory, such misogyny, such silencing of women?’ One thing that she said to us was, ‘You can try and change it, but it’s in the work, so you can just put it out there as strongly as you can. Don’t make her death easy. Let her fight for her life.’ By fighting for her life, people get to see that this female is strong. She’s trying. She’s not submitting to this man. And also we’ve taken out a lot of references to obedience from Desdemona to Othello, thereby giving her more agency.”
The significance of Othello’s race is another of the play’s most challenging facets. Chong Nee says “One thing that we looked at was the insidiousness of casual racism. We’re trying to find ways of making people feel uneasy about it. But there is also another cast member who is Laotian (Alice Keohavong), so adding her body, her culture, her physique into the show highlights race a bit more, by virtue of the fact that it’s not just this one dark man in a predominantly white world. There is actually someone else of another race who gets silenced and blamed for things which are not fault.
“But I guess the one thing that we looked at quite heavily was not in terms of race as such, but in terms of ‘otherness.’ Obviously Othello is from a different world and he’s trying to survive and make his way in the Venetian world. Then they go to Cyprus where there’s a courtesan who’s also ‘other,’ and you see that in this Venetian world, anyone from outside of Venice is in danger from its hierarchy,” he says.
It can be difficult to maintain sympathy for Othello as his character unravels, but Chong Nee and Evans have made a choice not to try. “In the first act, you see him stoic and commanding with all his corporeal being, status and position. At the very end he does what is referred to as an ‘honour killing,’ and we thought about what that term actually means. We didn’t want him at the end to be sympathetic. We didn’t want people to give him the honour that he eulogises with the last speech. We wanted him to be a metaphorically caged animal that has been poked and prodded, where all that he can do is try and fight for this honour. But what we display is that he has no honour left. So by doing that, and not giving this classic interpretation where the man gets to eulogise his ending, the audience in fact gets to see that he’s broken.”
Ray Chong Nee the actor doesn’t sound the least bit broken by either the mixed reviews from the show’s initial Melbourne run, or having to deliver such a demanding performance night after night as the production tours around Australia. “The reception from the audiences in Melbourne was divided but for the most part there was a lot of love regarding the show. I’ve been touring shows for the past 5 or 6 years intermittently and its great. A) it’s a great way to see the country B) it’s good to be employed C) I get to see the worth of taking productions into regional centres. There is a real need for the cultural side of shows in regional centres and sometimes they don’t get it. But they crave it as much as the city folk.”
Some Perth-dwellers craving this bit of 400-year-old culture that Bell Shakespeare’s Othello offers might have to go hungry: the show appears to be sold out.
Othello is presented as City of Perth’s Winter Arts Festival at the State Theatre Centre of WA from 17 – 20 August. Just in case more tickets are released, keep your eye on the Ticketek website here.