BELL Shakespeare director Peter Evans counts himself lucky to have Samoan-born actor Ray Chong Nee play the noble Moor of Venice in the company’s upcoming new production of “Othello”.
“Othello needs to have rock-star swagger,” he says.
“Ray has charisma and he’s got a certain gravitas. John [Bell] reminded me that Olivier said it was the hardest part of all, you need an actor who has a poetic nature but can also play a warrior.”
Chong Nee is considerably helped by the Bard.
“Shakespeare catches the casual racism of the Venetian state,” Evans says, noting the ease with which people joke about him as “thick-lips” and “the old black ram” despite fearing him as their general.
“They need him, but he’s never allowed to be fully part of the society; it feel so feels contemporary,” says Evans.
However, cultural appropriation is less on the director’s mind than the discussion about domestic violence in the play.
“The two main women, Desdemona and Emilia are killed mercilessly and that speaks to contemporary issues,” he says.
But Desdemona is no milksop or sacrificial victim. She is in Evans’ view delightful, but “she does not go gently into the good night, putting up a good struggle… it’s one of the bloodiest and most violent death scenes will see you in an ‘Othello’.”
Elizabeth Nabben is Desdemona and Evans has been following her work since she was in drama school.
He says her intelligence contributes to the realisation of a part he describes as “one of the most painful characters of all… Elizabeth brings a lot of integrity that character, she has to do a lot of work in a very short time on stage.”
Like Chong Nee, she has help from a familiar source.
“Shakespeare is brilliant the way he is able to imagine himself into a different gender in a different race, it’s quite incredible,” Evans says.
Weirdly, he notes, that everybody but Othello, including Desdemona, carries on for most of the play as if they’re in a comedy like “The Merchant of Venice” or “Twelfth Night”. Until the horror sets in.
Weird or not, the production has been packing them in in Melbourne and Perth. Evans rates the play in the top five Shakespeares, and concludes: “Everybody knows exactly what ‘Othello’ is about but few people have ever seen it”.
Bell Shakespeare presents “Othello”, The Playhouse, October 14-22. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.