My wife and I attended a matinee session of Bell Shakespeare’s Othello at the Opera House today, and quite enjoyed ourselves. We had some time to kill before the play, so wandered the Royal Botanical Gardens in dazzling sunlight, testing how well our iPhones cope with the brilliant harbourside glare (not so good). But it was pleasant enough walking in the dappled shade, to grab a coke from the Blond Cafe and observe how the bronze statuary on Governor Phillip Fountain had stained the white granite, while a young ibis pestered its mother for a feed nearby. Sydneysiders hate the ibis, and call it the ‘dumpster diver’ or ‘bin chicken’ because 40% of their diet consists of human refuse. And they smell. The young bird’s antics reminded me of our son, who pesters my wife with text-messages every day on his way home from uni (‘What’s for tea, ma?‘). Luckily, he doesn’t peck her on the head and buffet her with his wings at the same time. And he usually smells a lot better than I do.
Following that, we walked over the Conservatorium of Music and listened to young kids nervously practising the violin, clarinet, and flute ahead of the same auditions our son sat (and passed) a year ago. We strolled through the grounds of old Government House on our way back to the theatre, where on the steps were assembled hundreds of middle-aged Asian dressed in traditional dress being harangued by a much younger Asian woman shrieking into a microphone while soothing oriental music piped in the background. I waited for one of the older women to get all Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on the screamer’s ass, but our play was about to start.
We took our seats, scratched our heads at the sight of a young woman (Desdemona) who was already on stage, laying motionless on a table. Now, theatregoers are fed a lot of directorial tomfoolery at the best of times, so to my mind the play wasn’t necessarily off to a flying start. Maybe she’s tired? Maybe she’s already dead? Maybe she’s rehearsing being dead? That sushi I had at Broadway is making me quite bilious, maybe she had the sushi? Such were the thoughts filling my head when, apropos of nothing, she got up and walked off stage. Brilliant! Not knowing if I should start clapping or not (modern theatre direction being the wanktastic minefield that it is) I aborted my applause in mid-air and pretended I was just rubbing my face. Nobody seemed to notice.
My wife was reading the program, where they had condensed the entire plot into two short paragraphs:”Interracial hijinks take calamitous turn!” or something like that. While I was interested to see Othello himself, and another look at Desdemona was definitely in order, more than anything, I wanted to see what they would do with Iago, that singular psychopath, perhaps my favourite character in the entire Shakespeare canon. Then, onto the boards strolls some average-looking dude I’ve never heard of. Yalin Ozucelik? WTF? Here’s a character so potent that Shakespeare actually considered changing the working title of the play from ‘The Black Moor’ to ‘The White Bastard’ (I kid you not) and we’re entrusting it to this skinny hipster?
And this is where it gets a little surreal for y’all. Because, see, I was wrong. I know! Stop the presses, right? One minute I’m sniffing ‘It’s Kenneth Branagh or it’s nothing’ and the next I’m totally enrapt, because this fella Yalin saves the show. He injects the requisite sneering duplicity into the role, sure, but also made me aware for the first time ever of the jeopardy that lies central to Iago’s scheming. He isn’t in control, he’s on the make, snatching opportunities as they come without a care for the mortal price to be paid. Three hundred years before Freud, what we are watching is a consummate demonstration of human psychopathy in five acts. Just go see the play. Get some culture. This Othello isn’t perfect. It’s far from perfect, but it’s better than anything else you’ll see this week.