Applause for Shakespeare

By Shanaka Amarasinghe

It had been some time since, and it will be some time before, we see a full length Shakespearean production on the boards in Colombo. That is a shame, given that the annual Shakespeare Drama Competition is a breeding ground for budding thespians. Or is it? That is another story. Purely for the paucity of high quality drama even being attempted, Thushara Hettihamu and his merry band must be applauded for deciding upon, and eventually staging Shakespeare’s Othello, adapted for the Lionel Wendt stage via some clever edits.

(C) Deshan Tennakoon, 2010

The production was part of the celebration of 175 years of Royal College, and given the strong theatre tradition that Royal has boasted in those years, it is only fitting that they regale us with one of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies. And indeed, after nearly two centuries of ‘books’ and ‘men’ it was high time they got some birds on call. That they did with aplomb and Ashini Fernando, Shannon Misso and Thanuja Jayawardena must be applauded for lending their considerable clout to the performance. I shudder to think of the alternative. Royal have never shied away from Shakespeare. This production was ambitious, and ambition in the dramatic arts must always be encouraged.

The show ran from July 30th – August 1st, with all three nights being sold out. This reviewer witnessed the show on opening night and left the two and a half hour production without complaint. Shakespeare is immensely difficult to do, and it does nobody any good being compared with professional actors on the West End of London. The sad truth is that almost the entirety of the cast are corporate slaves, lawyers, teachers or some such other unexciting occupation for most of their day, in addition to being husbands, wives, fiancées and fathers, which – by all accounts – is equally unexciting. It is in this context that Othello must be judged.

Director/Producer Thushara Hettihamu comes from a background of creative visual work. His day job sees him advertising, visualizing, conceptualizing and more often than not – executing. His influence on the production was obvious from the start. The multi use stairway centre-stage and the minimalist black box set were Hetti staples. The clean, precise, lighting cues in between scenes were well thought out, if ever so slightly tardy, on opening night. In fact, the lighting on the whole was impressive, except for Desdemona’s backlit silhouette which was wholly unnecessary.

What was necessary however, was the editing of the script. And it had been very cleverly done. Naturally, the leaving out of chunks of material will, in some way, serve to make the characters less meaty and the motivations of each player slightly less apparent. But in the circumstances a good balance was struck.

With hindsight though, it seems as if shifting the bedroom scene where Othello kills Desdemona to the First Act was an experiment that did not serve its purpose. Even for those who had not known the play Othello’s crime of passion was, and should have been, the climax. Somehow, once Desdemona’s fate was known – the events leading upto it lost some of their gloss.

Even so, the chop and splice was done with deliberate intent and it worked for some. One person it did not work for unfortunately was Othello (Arjuna Wignaraja) himself. Having expended a massive amount of energy in that devastatingly tortured scene, he spent most of the rest of the play recovering from that ordeal. In terms of the arc of his character it was almost too much to ask of an actor. It was the one place the cinematic edit did not work. As a result, Othello – following on from the juxtaposed first scene – suffered from a lack of amiability which Othello must possess in order to be respected and revered in Venice, despite his skin colour. Wignaraja, could not shake off the stigma of abusive spouse throughout the performance although he did elicit some sympathy just prior to smiting himself thus.

Like Wignaraja, Thanuja Jayawardena made a comeback to the stage after a lapse of several years. Relatively inexperienced, her handling of Desdemona was a visual treat. Nevertheless, it appeared that her character suffered the most from the edits that were made to the play. As an actor she was thrown into a quandary between acting and grappling with the character laid out in the entire text. Desdemona was a woman of many parts. A rebel, a pioneer, a dutiful wife and a doted upon daughter.

She was, while being suitably naïve, also not oblivious to the politics of the city. To say that she is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult women to play will not be an understatement. While Jayawardena attempted each of these differing emotions, some with more success than others, the role somehow lacked the conviction it needed. Again, perhaps caused by the murder scene, this reviewer sensed a tension between Desdemona and Othello which pervaded the first act, whereas it should only have been evident towards the end of the play. Also, Desdemona seemed too familiar with the likes of Iago and Cassio, and her scenes with Cassio were deliberately heightened to create ambiguity where none should have existed.

Those who knew the play and didn’t alike, should not have been given any inkling to the fact that any chemistry existed between her and Cassio. Desdemona needed to be at all times above suspicion. However, the portrayal which included a sense of familiarity bordering on flirtatiousness, did not serve her well. Othello’s jealousy must be unfounded – that is the tragedy - and the audience was left with too much ambivalence in that regard. Whether this was also deliberate on the Director’s part remains to be seen, and if it was could probably have been played more subtly.

The star of the show was undoubtedly, the experienced Mohamed Adamaly, playing the villainous Iago. As much as Othello is the title role, the play belongs to Iago. And Adamaly owned the stage. For too long we have watched Adam play the nice guy, requiring only a cursory glance at the depth of his acting ability. Iago, with his opportunism, his deep seated hatred, his mesmerizing pseudo-faithfulness and unguarded ambition proved a sterner test, and as we had suspected he would all along, Adamaly rose to the challenge. Like Desdemona, Iago’s character is infernally topsy-turvy.
He is different things to different people and portraying that with credibility was a huge challenge. A challenge Adam rose to with thoughtfulness. He was also the most at ease with Shakespeare’s blank verse which proved an obvious stumbling block to many of the supporting cast.Maturity and experience are prerequisites when attempting Shakespeare, and Adam was one of the cast members who possessed both these qualities in abundance.

Another who possessed those qualities was Ashini Fernando, whose cameo as Bianca on opening night was as classy as it was powerful, leaving a shell-shocked Cassio gasping for breath against the proscenium. Shannon Misso was good in patches but at some points prone to histrionics. Control was all important and on opening night it could have been more reined in. The all important handkerchief transfer was suitably elaborate and Misso needed to do more to heighten her tragic realization of the part she unwittingly played in her mistress’ death.

The interplay was best between Othello and Iago, both were giving actors, with an understanding of what was required of them. Sometimes – and it is often easy to be overwhelmed by the Bard – the other actors tended to become slightly self conscious and the onstage chemistry suffered as a result. Luckily Iago and Othello spent most time together and the scene in which Iago completely poisons Othello’s mind was the highlight of the play. It was minimal, precise and beautifully envisioned with lights (blackouts and alternate spots) sound (clicking dice) and the players.
There was however a disparity between the main roles and the supporting cast. However, given the expeditious edits this was not highlighted. Diction, clarity and pure comprehension of the blank verse was tough for the less experienced actors, but as set out before RSC standards cannot, and should not be unreasonably expected. Despite the diversity in the quality of the playing the production did not suffer as a whole.

Sajith Amendra as the unfortunate Michael Cassio belied his impressive credentials with a performance of uncharacteristic diffidence. He seemed almost dwarfed both literally and metaphorically by Iago and Othello. Given Amendra’s obvious talent, one can only assume that he was under rehearsed. In fact, the entire play would have improved tenfold with a week’s extra rehearsal. Roderigo’s (Lucknath Goonetilleka) slightly manic disposition was also a bit jarring. While the interpretation of the character is in the hands of the director, the actor must work hard towards making it believable.

One word of discouragement though for the costumes. They were at times spectacular purely for the sake of spectacle. Shakespeare is not about the costumes, it’s about the lines. And the costumes – albeit perfectly executed - were at some points distracting in their elaborate nature. With glamorous costumes it is sometimes difficult to refrain from modelling them when the actor is supposed to be acting. Iago possibly benefitted from his minimal costume changes and relatively sober attire where his attention was constantly focused on the character. Despite the glitzy allure of the costumes it is important to prioritize and this could be a ‘lesson learnt’. Also – and this is a Sri Lankan problem – there is sometimes not enough attention paid to the physical side of theatre. The puppet sequence which started off the play could have benefitted from some physical workshops.

At the end of the two and a half hours, I left the theatre glad I had come. Knowing how difficult Shakespeare is in absolute terms, the Royalists deserved their applause for having the cojones to take on such a difficult piece of theatre and accomplish it to the standard witnessed.

Despite the unavailability of some of Reid Avenue’s more celebrated actors of the recent past, it was a fitting tribute to 175 years of dramatic tradition. The suggestions above stem purely from an alternate viewpoint, of which there are many. Very likely, many will disagree, and that is in itself an off shoot of good theatre. Good theatre provokes discussion – of interpretations, of characters, of choices and Othello has provoked a great deal of discussion. Kudos to the cast and crew for a Herculean effort. In the end it was RSC alright.

Royal. Shakespeare. Congratulations.

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