Othello has long been one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, but with its challenges comes great potential. That potential is realised in Queensland Theatre’s production, part of the 2022 Brisbane Festival program. It is an electric adaption that approaches the tragedy from a uniquely-Queensland perspective. Jimi Bani and Jason Klarwein inject Australian and Torres Strait Islander culture into a powerful tri-lingual (Kala Lagaw Ya, Yumpla Tok and English) tapestry that combines two great storytelling traditions, namely Shakespeare and Wagadagam.
The complex work follows Othello (Jimi Bani), a Moorish army general who controversially marries Desdemona (Emily Burton), the white daughter of Senator Brabantio (a wealthy cane farmer played by Eugene Gilfedder). His mind is poisoned over a fictitious affair between his wife and squadron leader Cassio (Benjin Maza). The suggestion is made by his manipulative and vengeful ensign Iago (Andrew Buchanan), who is angered by the fact that Othello has promoted Cassio before him. Rather than Renaissance Venice and Cyprus, this version of Othello is set between 1942 Cairns and the Torres Strait Islands. It is a tribute to the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion and the 800 Torres Strait Islander men who volunteered to protect the northern tip of Australia during World War II. They included Jimi Bani’s great grandfather, the late Ephraim Bani Snr, and his grandfather, the late Solomon Gela.
The assured storytelling from this pioneering approach makes the play accessible to all audiences, with Klarwein’s detailed direction immediately engaging. The classic tale of jealousy, betrayal and revenge is ultimately a brutal story, yet Klarwein finds comedy in aspects of its telling. Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesorieri’s costume design establishes Desdemona’s purity and innocence. Brady Watkin’s composition and sound design works with Richard Roberts’ set design to create stunning imagery. Ben Hughes’ lighting design is also noteworthy.
Buchanan is brilliant as the Machiavellian Iago who drives the plot. Bani conveys Othello’s central humanity. Burton is the best she’s ever been as Desdemona. Ogden is also praiseworthy as her worldlier friend and confidante, Emilia. And Maza’s Cassio is an audience favourite thanks to his cheeky more than courtly demeanour. Masterful handling of the story’s tragic twists and turns make its running time appear less than its actual two hours 40-minutes (including interval). Its weaving together of Kala Lagaw Ya (a language of the Torres Strait), Youmpla Tok (Torres Strait Creole) and Shakespearean English is seamless. Meaning is never lost in transitions, as each language is used to distinct effect.
While its still-startling conclusion has been slightly changed, this Othello shows how many of the story’s themes around gender, difference, jealousy, ambition and love remain relevant today. The reactions of those new to the story serve as testament to the power of its retelling. It may have taken 52 years for the tale of Shakespeare’s Moor to make its way to the Queensland Theatre stage, but with a resounding opening night standing ovation through four curtain calls, it is clear that it has definitely been worth the wait.
It is playing at Billie Brown Theatre until 1st October, 2022.