Othello; 2021 Queensland Theatre.
A rescheduled season, unavailable actress, a call up, seven days of rehearsal, my Queensland Theatre debut.
"Our rehearsal room is full of ‘thalinga’ (deep listening) as we share language and culture equally. Jimi and this brilliant all-Queensland cast offer you OTHELLO reimagined in the spirit of unity by which it was made. This play, for all its dark undercurrents, is a celebration of Australian culture and represents the deep desire of ordinary Australians to reconcile our history." - Jason Klarwein, Director.
Othello has long been deemed as a problematic play. A play whose protagonist is of dark skin and "thick lips" and happens to strangle his innocent wife to death. This all being true, I grasp why it is deemed problematic. Yet, somehow this production under the masterful direction of Jason Klarwein managed to find validity behind Othello's actions through, in Othello's world, the upmost importance of honour & stressing the earnestness of "honest, honest Iago". In the wrong hands this play is deeply racist and distasteful. No wonder Queensland Theatre had to wait 50 years until the right duo came along.
So, my story. I played QT's first Desdemona. Othello's new, white, young bride. This show was programmed to play in August of 2021 in Cairns. COVID struck and it was postponed. The new dates proved conflicting for the original actress cast in the role and with years of experience working with Jason in his company the Grin & Tonic Theatre Troupe, I got the call. A few days later, I am watching the company run and then... nothing for about two months as they waited for the new date to arrive. During that time, I began the process of discovery, exploring my own interpretation whilst being conscious that the cast were use to a certain essence of the previous actor; knowing that we had such a short amount to time to remount. Imposture syndrome hit hard. I powered through learning the lines without really having a great sense of who this character was until, I was told by west-end actor Garreth Harris "you only have two choices here; you can either go forth feeling as though you don't belong or you can say fuck it, everything happens for a reason and do the work". I chose the latter.
My challenge with Desdemona is that she is written to be choked to death by her husband. A victim of domestic violence. I was acutely aware that 1 in 10 women in Australia have experienced DV (reported of course...). One woman every week dies of domestic violence related incidences. That's 52 Australian women a year. There would be multiple women in the audience every show who could relate to Desdemona in some way shape or form. So, she cannot be played as a victim. The audience need to respect her and fall in love with her eternal optimism and faith she has in her husband. She is an incredibly intelligent woman who fights for what she wants. It was a lot.
"There are three types of language you will hear — Kala Lagaw Ya, Elizabethan English and Yumpla Tok (the creole of the language and English together). There are no subtitles. If you have never seen a Shakespeare play, don't worry, you are in good hands and you will follow the story..." - Jason Klarwein.
Day one. I arrived to be greeted by just the warmest and most lovely Jimi Bani who was in the title role. We spent the morning working through our scenes together. It was a large feat to form a convincing, loving relationship in 7 days but Jimi is so generous and authentic it seemed easy. More and more cast members [Andrew Buchanan, Sarah Ogden, Richard Bani, Eugene Gilfedder, Kevin Hides, Benjin Maza, Matt McInally, Tia-Shonté Southwood, Conwell Bani and Gabriel Bani] were added and eventually at the end of day two all of my scenes were blocked. It was quick but I had done the work. The days that followed included costume fittings, copious amounts of warm ups, line runs, sleepless nights, mistakes, corpsing, insecurity, confidence, compliments and notes.
As fast as the rehearsal period came, the season soon followed. Flying into Cairns, checking into the hotel, trying to sleep, waking up, walking to the theatre; all seemed like one second. We took part of a smoking ceremony, an acknowledgment and welcome to country. And then we tech'd. The season that follows was just beautiful. The reactions ranged from gasps, crying, laughing, singing along, all at differing times dependant on the demographic of the audience. My husband who so lovingly flew up to see it, retold a story of a group of women exclaiming "God, I love her" when Desdemona was fighting back at Othello. It was entirely a two-way conversation between the show onstage and the show in the seating bank. A unique aspect of showing such a thriller in Cairns.
CC: Queensland Theatre Photography
The season came to a close with the most magnificent performance of tradition song and dance from the Bani brother's friends and family. There were certainly times of imposture syndrome and self-doubt, tears and elation but looking back at the experience, one thing stands out and that is, what we did mattered to the people who saw it. It was representing the otherwise overlooked and it was breathing new life into a classic to shift ideals and thoughts. It was the reason why I do theatre.
Jimi Bani and Jason Klarwein are true masters of their craft and we are all the beneficiaries.
Go see Othello at Queensland Theatre in October this year (2022).