Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney
October 24, 2015

Desdemona is the product of a meeting of minds: a crucible where the theatrical and literary brilliance of director Peter Sellars and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison have passed through the prism of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine and achieved a rare and potent alchemy.

Just a single scant reference in Act IV of Othello implies that Desdemona may as a child have had an African nurse named Barbary, but from this minute seed Morrison has crafted an entire world. From a hinterland between life and death the title character, performed with astonishing vigour by American actress Tina Benko, reveals a secret history, recounting her upbringing as the daughter of emotionally detached parents, her fateful and sexually charged first meeting of the Moor commander, Othello, and the emotional corrosion of their love that would result in her murder. Beyond the specifics of this character’s story, Desdemona stirs a dark and confronting undercurrent that exposes the lingering contemporary resonances with this story’s racial and gender inequality and domestic abuse.

This emotionally rich yet challenging piece of theatre does not employ the conventional architecture of a play, but rather inhabits a more insular, meditative space. It is a lyrical, shadowy rite in which the raging soul of Desdemona, unburdened of the social constraints of Renaissance Venice, can finally annunciate the frank and sometimes brutal truths of her life. The poetry of Morrison’s text is paired with music by Malian singer Roike Traoré, whose soulful, deeply impassioned voice, accompanied by a small band and two backing singers, captures the African spirit of Barbary. Sung in the Bambara dialect (with English translations projected behind) these songs play as pivotal a role in achieving the mesmeric other-worldliness of this production as the dialogue, enhancing the ancient, ritualistic qualities that underpin this narrative.

The staging is economical yet apt with its gently ecclesiastical atmosphere. Several small islands of empty glass vessels, softly lit in dull pools of light or with the constellation of lightbulbs hanging from overhead, offer intimate focal points as Benko drifts across the stage. Often the dialogue is spoken through a microphone, allowing a precisely nuanced, unstrained delivery, but occasionally, as Desdemona challenges our preconceptions of her fragile femininity, the stark contrast of an unamplified shout provides a powerful counterpoint. As her story unfolds, Desdemona becomes possessed by other characters – Othello himself, her mother, her friend Emilia – and with impressive dexterity Benko is able to conjure these spectres not merely vocally, but with an adjustment of her gait and posture too.

Dressed uniformly in simple white garments that both enhances the alabaster paleness of Benko’s skin and the contrasting depth of Traoré’s, the allusion to the racial indifference of spiritual purity is clear. Yet throughout Morrison jostles our expectations of these characters, showing us with caustic candor that no soul is entirely untarnished. Othello was more a heartless thug than noble warrior; Emilia was no friend, but a reluctant and bitter servant; Cassio becomes a brutal tyrant after Othello’s suicide; and perhaps most cuttingly, the nurse who raised Desdemona with apparent love and compassion was merely a slave following her duties, renamed Barbary by her captors to remind her of her savagery and servitude.

What Sellars and Morrison have created is profound and deeply affecting, but also demanding of sustained and unwavering focus from the audience for the full two hours of the production. Some may find the experience of Desdemona unforgivingly onerous, but those able to offer this production their attention are rewarded with something beautifully observed, expertly articulated and in its own, hushed way, intensely moving.