Desdemona – Melbourne Festival

Desdemona sheds light on the many questions and intrigues of Shakespeare’s Othello with song, poetry and visual simplicity. Toni Morrison, Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, has crafted a piece of theatre that re-imagines the play Othello.

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Morrison’s narrative floats sublimely on a metaphoric cloud of beautiful music and lyrics of Malian singer and songwriter Rokia Traoré, injecting into the 400-year-old play a feminine perspective and African heart.

It is virtually one, long monologue from the point of view of Desdemona who is played by Tina Benko. Benko reveals her character’s thoughts and feelings. In Othello, the action revolves around Desdemona but little airtime is given over to her inner motivations and burdens. There is a real absence of inner life of characters except for Iago. This is why the play is so intriguing; as usual, Shakespeare leaves us with more questions than answers as to why his characters behave in certain ways.

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Morrison brilliantly fills the gaps and illuminates the story. Morrison wonders and tries to give answers to the question, ‘what was the reality of Africa for Shakespeare?’

Morrison’s enormous monologue, effortlessly performed by Benko, is interspersed with Traoré’s lyrics that explore some of the themes that sprout from the original play. Why do we betray others? For what reason is man on earth? How do we come to love one another so lovingly and so cruelly? Why was Othello so easily led by Iago? What has race got to do with the whole story?

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Knowledge of this Shakespearean tragedy is needed to really appreciate this production. Desdemona speaks to us from the grave. In her afterlife, she has it out with her African nursemaid Barbary, her maid Emilia and then has a showdown with her husband and murderer, Othello. Benko, with clever voice and accent adjustment, plays all these characters and keeps the interchanges lively and haunting. She even performs a dialogue between the mothers-in-law, Othello’s mother and her own mother. Morrison has Desdemona confront her demons and finally put things to rest after 400 years.

The most engaging moment of the piece is the answer to the question as to why Iago had such strong influence over his master Othello. Morrison proffers a disturbing story, one that goes much further than the textbook arguments that Iago was pure evil, so clever with words and driven with mad revenge.

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The beauty of the staging and lighting added to the eerie nature of the piece; after all, we are led into the afterlife; the dead are brought to life, the dead talk of their former ‘earth world’. As director Peter Sellars writes in the program notes, “In African traditions, the dead are quite undead and are very present.”

A dozen or so metre-long fluorescent lighting bars were placed on the floor and covered the expanse of the Sumner stage. Small, clear soul jars of all shapes and sizes were positioned quite close to these bars, giving off a glittering lighting effect, altars honouring the dead. Large, pendant globes hung from above the stage. Dotted around the space were ten or so live microphones that the actors/musicians used effectively. There were shades of a Laurie Anderson performance at first hearing, but this disappeared very quickly and the use of the microphones became hauntingly beautiful. Benko moved from microphone to microphone, as each new scene commenced. The musicians stayed in the one spot.

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Present on stage along with Traoré and Benko, the entire time, were vocalists Fatim Kouyaté and Marie Dembelé. Accompanying these figures of divine femininity were also two male musicians, Mamah Diabaté and Toumani Kouyaté playing the n’goni and the kora respectively. The music played is meditative and dreamlike. Singing in their Bambara native tongue, the musicians elaborated on themes presented in the monologue. The voices were mesmerizing and such amazing sounds emanated. The poetry of the lyrics dealt with strong ideas of humanity and the nature of relationships and existence.

This is a wonderful performance, breathing new life into 17th century Shakespeare tragedy with a 21st century lens.

4 Stars

Australian premiere

Desdemona

Text by Toni Morrison

Music and lyrics by Rokia Traoré

Directed by Peter Sellars.

Sumner Theatre

Oct 16 17 18 19

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