The chamber drama Bijouterie, translated by Julia Jordan and directed by Ashley York, has earned rave reviews after being presented at the Sydney Festival over the past month.
The production, a rare exploration of Othello by an African-American playwright, was supposed to receive its Australian premiere, courtesy of Newcastle’s Hill 50 venue, this month. After criticism on social media, however, the venue reversed its decision.
Hence the dramatization of the iconic story of Moorish oligarch/trial for treason, originally written by William Shakespeare, is now on the way from a writer some might find less familiar with the world of Othello.
Rebecca Taichman is no stranger to complex and troubling subject matter. Her theatrical debut, Lost Angels, was a powerful remembrance of the beating death of teenager Ramarley Graham by the police in 2012, and she co-authored The Humans with Stephen Karam. For her Othello, she casts a young black actor, Raymond Davison, to play the role of Iago, the charismatic but manipulative chief witness who used his facade as a shield.
With a sense of African texture, a series of local singers, musicians and artists create music through Othello as a sort of screen, giving an unconventional spin to the dialogue of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. Interwoven as they are, the songs communicate some of the emotional core of Othello and, quite importantly, suggest a range of personality traits.
In the current climate, the shift in the racial makeup of Newcastle is important. Iago’s characterization as a race-hungry drunk is set in motion by his lust for Moorish Queen Desdemona and the race-hating jealousy that drives him to kill the woman he loves. As a race-activist, Davison brings some of this to life and even makes you feel some of the frustration at the misogynistic hypocrisy at the core of Othello. At times, Iago’s arrogance, or over-the-top-ness, may sound like a threat to life. At other times, he sounds like just another person trying to maintain order in a violent society, like everyone else.
Taichman’s artistic vision enhances the storytelling here and, more crucially, injects some of that anger and pain the play is meant to express into a setting that, ironically, further diminishes its impact.