by William Shakespeare / 2017, Pop-up Globe, Auckland, NZ and Melbourne, Australia / Directed by Ben Naylor / Associate direction & movement by Megan Adams / Costume design by Chantelle Gerrard / Music by Paul McLaney / Fight direction by Alexander Holloway
In our work for the Queens Company at PUG, making this production in rep with Much Ado About Nothing, director Miriama McDowell, costume designer Chantelle Gerrard and I explored an aesthetic which, in the postmodern spirit of the theatre itself, clashed the period with the modern. We aimed to create a pair of complementary productions which Shakespeare and his company would have understood visually, but which also felt entirely at home in the southern hemisphere in the third millennium. Miriama’s joyous, exquisite production of Much Ado, reframed Messina as a Pacific island, and in so doing discovered an authentically Pacific Shakespearean style, with singing and movement traditions of waiata and siva, and costumed in white, off-white and floral colours.
Othello, too, is a play set on an island, in a storm. Associate director and choreographer Megan Adams and I worked extensively with imagery of ships and sea to bring the globe to Pop-up Globe. Our company was itself global: Aotearoa, Samoa, England, Scotland, Norway, Germany, the United States and Turkey met in the persons of the company. Megan’s movement direction combined Pacific social custom with Renaissance formalities, the devil-may-care culture of the ANZACS (replete with an offensive WW1 ANZAC song) and the martial physicality of the All-Blacks (in the physicalisations of hungi, haka and karakia). The Southlander (Te Kohe Tuhaka as Othello) encountered the Norseman (Haakon Smestad as Iago); English feist (Jasmine Blackborow as Desdemona) was stoked by Maori fire (Roimata Fox as Emilia).
Chantelle’s visual score underlined these binaries using mono-chromatic and primary colour schemes, highlighting doctrinal allegory in the text with archetypal character palates. The production’s conception relied on the Renaissance understanding of the operations of evil as being the work of the Devil incarnate, with early modern cosmological ideas encoded in the performance in ways instantly recognisable to a contemporary audience, through the choreography of elemental materials: fire, water, wood, sand, blood and wine; and by an anti-deus ex machina at the end. Haakon came up with the idea for this last, literally breathtaking theatrical moment, and then had the unbelievable courage to carry it out: a sixty-foot ascent into the heavens, upside down.
From September 2017 – February 2018, the production ran at PUG in Melbourne, Australia, with Regan Taylor taking over from Te Kohe Tuhaka in the title role, and with Simon Prast as Brabantio/Gratiano.
Throughout its Auckland and Melbourne seasons, the production featured four of my ex-students from MA Acting at Central: Jasmine Blackborow as Desdemona, Daryl Green as Cassio, Kieran Mortell as Roderigo, and Haakon Smestad as Iago – all of whom are deservedly acclaimed in reviews of the production:
Australian Arts Review – “The cast of Othello navigate both the emotional landscape of the play and the physical landscape of the Pop-Up Globe space extraordinarily well … Director Ben Naylor and his team have made something brilliant and unique.”
NZ Herald – “An intensely emotional staging … no holding back as director Ben Naylor presents a vigorously physical, blood-soaked interpretation of a play which has acts of appalling cruelty mingling with exquisite poetry.”
Weekend Notes – “The enjoyment was instant from the minute the nervous and easily manipulated Roderigo runs in looking for someone to console him over his unrequited crush … Each of the characters was masterfully executed.”
An interview with me about making the show:
Mobile phone footage of Megan Adams’ mad, brilliant, heavy metal, Middle-Eastern haka jig:
And here is a TV news snippet about one particular night at the production, which turned out to be one of the most moving nights of my theatre career: Gabriel Wharehinga, a young actor facing a tragically early death, came to visit us.
Photography by Peter Meecham