Initially scheduled to premiere as part of their 2020 season, and then postponed further due to lockdowns in August, Queensland Theatre’s thrilling tri-lingual production of Othello has finally opened in Cairns.
Presented as part of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair in the intimate Bulmba-ja Arts Centre theatre, this adaptation is set between Cairns and the Torres Strait and stars Jimi Bani as Othello, the first Torres Strait Islander to play the role.
Adapted by Jimi Bani and Jason Klarwein, Othello reimagines Shakespeare’s tragic tale of jealousy, manipulation, and betrayal in the Torres Strait, casting the titular character as a Captain of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion during World War II. This battalion played a vital role in the defence of Australia’s northern tip, and more than 800 Torres Strait Islanders signed up to serve, including Jimi Bani’s great grandfather, the late Ephraim Bani Snr, and his grandfather, the late Solomon Gela.
A tri-lingual production incorporating Elizabethan English, Kala Lagaw Ya, and Yumpla Tok, this is the first time that Queensland Theatre has programmed Othello in the fifty-year history of the company.
As the Imperial Japanese Navy bears south toward Far North Queensland, Captain Othello and his battalion are all that stand in their way. Othello’s personal life is equally tense and turbulent – he has secretly married Desdemona, the daughter of wealthy cane farmer Brabantio, and unbeknownst to him, Desdemona’s spurned suitor Rodorigo has joined forces with Othello’s ensign Iago in plotting against him. Iago, disgusted that Michael Cassio has been promoted to lieutenant while he remains an ensign, seeks to orchestrate Othello’s downfall through a series of ever-changing plots and manipulations, blurring the lines between how things are and how they seem.
In addition to the use of local language, Torres Strait Islander culture and artistry was incorporated into the performance through dance and song, including the World War II Plane Dance. These elements were deeply and seamlessly embedded in the storytelling and formed an integral part of the performance, as opposed to simply being a tokenistic overlay on the existing text.
As with all of Shakespeare’s enduring works, at the core of Othello are themes and emotions that have lasted through the centuries – love, duty, jealousy, and revenge. The themes of race and racial prejudice are also entrenched in the play, and this production used the term Moor as a slur rather than as a signifier of Othello’s North African background, as in the original text. Iago’s distaste at Cassio’s promotion was also suggested to be based, at least in part, on his being an Islander man. These prejudices rang true in the Australian cultural context, in which insidious and violent racism persists, as well as the historical context of World War II, when Indigenous servicemen were paid around half the wage of non-Indigenous soldiers. As in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, misogyny also played no small role in the unfolding of events, although Desdemona was presented not as a wilting waif but as a confident and forthright woman.
The all-Queensland cast delivered a consistently outstanding performance over this lengthy and complex work. Jimi Bani was an impassioned Othello and displayed great versatility as he swung between playful newlywed, commanding military captain, and uncertain confidante, and the escalation of his passions and jealousy felt proportionate. Andrew Buchanan gave an equally impressive performance as the cold-blooded and two-faced Iago, embodying the duality of the character in his asides to the audience and his manipulation of the people around him.
Ellen Tuffley was earnest, lively, and quick-witted as Desdemona, and her enunciation and rhythm with the Elizabethan language flowed naturally. Her chemistry with Bani was spirited and affectionate and her scenes with Iago’s cynical wife Emilia, played with great skill and emotion by Sarah Ogden, were full of tenderness and camaraderie. Matt McInally brought great expressiveness and comedic timing to the role of Rodorigo, and the emotional range of his final scene was especially impactful. Benjin Maza was immensely likeable as Cassio, playing the role with an openness and good humour that contrasted strongly against Iago’s disdain of him.
From his memorable entrance to the final scene, Richard Bani was an intense and stoic Montano. Conwell Bani and Gabriel Bani rounded out the cast as battalion soldiers and dancers, and Tia-Shonté Southwood brought passion and energy to the role of Bianca. Eugene Gilfedder made a lasting impression as the sour and contemptuous Brabantio, despite only appearing in the first act, and Kevin Hides bristled as the Lieutenant Colonel, whose character replaced the Duke of Venice from the original play.
Jason Klarwein’s incisive direction and purposeful blocking created some spectacular and symbolic moments onstage, physically emphasising the shifting of powers and alliances and drawing the audience further into the plots and schemes unfolding. The intimate venue was used to great effect, with characters entering and exiting through the theatre doors and aisle stairs as well as via the stage, and the movement of props and set pieces was often incorporated smoothly into the movement of the actors. The choreographed violence throughout the work was highly physical and skilfully executed.
Striking set design by Richard Roberts included a number of exciting reveals without gimmicks, supporting and enhancing the action without imposing on it. Lighting design by Ben Hughes contributed to the setting and cast the actors’ shadows across the walls and water, emphasising the growing suspicion and duplicity throughout the work. Sound design by Brady Watkins underscored the mood of many scenes as well as establishing the wartime setting, and costume design by Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesorieri kept the military hierarchy and historical era clear. Sound, lighting and set elements were all used effectively to transition between scenes and the use of locally appropriate props, such as a cane knife and frangipani flowers, grounded the play more firmly in place.
Full of passion and power, Othello was masterfully performed and exemplified what Shakespeare can be on a modern stage – enduring stories of human emotion and fallibility woven into different historical, narrative, or geographic locations with commitment, context, and care.
Othello played at Bulmba-ja Arts Centre, Cairns, from 12-13 November 2021, and will play at the Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane, from 10 September – 1 October 2022.