Othello Polynesia

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

02/06/2009 - 06/06/2009

The Compleate Workes Project

Production Details

You’ve never seen Shakespeare like this before! 

Othello Polynesia, a new take on the classic by the Black Friars is coming to Downstage in June.

This tragic tale of revenge, betrayal, jealousy and love comes alive in modern-day Polynesia. 

With backing from Creative New Zealand, true to the original script and created in consultation with Oxford Shakespearean editor Professor Michael Neill, this play portrays Othello as the only palangi character in a brown society.  Driven by the cunning manipulations of the malignant Iago, Othello Polynesia is a fast-paced, heartbreaking drama performed by one of New Zealand’s newest Polynesian theatre groups. 

"We see Othello Polynesia as our own story, it’s about identity and brotherhood and these things are still just as relevant today as they were 400 years ago. We look forward to sharing it with a new audience in Wellington," says Black Friars Director Michelle Johansson. The Black Friars have made several changes to the show since its Auckland debut. Michelle: "The show is now 100 minutes long and it contains a lot more Polynesian cultural influences, including music, dance and drums. 

The Black Friars are a group of first-generation New Zealand born Pacific Islanders striving in their own personal quests for identity.  They achieved awards in 2007 for the ‘Best Festival Newcomers’ in the New Zealand International Comedy Festival and gained an honourable mention in the North and South Magazine ‘New Zealander of the Year’. 

In Othello Polynesia, the company strives to bring Shakespeare to young people because the fundamental human truths portrayed in his plays still have relevance for today’s audience. 

There will also be a special guest for the opening night; Patrick Spotiswood, Director of Education at the Globe, London, who is in New Zealand as part of the NZ09 Totally Shakespeare Compleate Works programme. 

Othello Polynesia  is coming to Downstage Theatre for a strictly limited week long season
from Tuesday 2 June till Saturday 6 June, starting at 8pm each night.
Matinee, Saturday 6 June, 2pm
Prices for the show range from $20 for students to $25 for a full price ticket.
Tickets can be purchased online, by phone at (04) 801 6946 or in person at Downstage’s box office.
For up-to-date information, prices and bookings visit www.downstage.co.nz.
Downstage is proudly sponsored by BNZ.

Othello Semu Filipo
Iago Vau Atonio
Desdemona Victoria Schmidt
Emilia Irene Ongoongo
Cassio Lauie Sila
Roderigo Tana Aiono
Brabantio/Musician Misipele Tofilau
Montano Tavai Fa'asavalu
The Duke Asalemo Tofete
Musician Xaris Tofilau

Ura Pa'u Natalie Faitala
Fa'ataupati Vau Atonio

Cook Island drums Arrangement by Tupapa'a Maea
Prologue Arrangement by Misipele Tofilau
Ura Pa'u Arrangement by Tupapa'a Maea, Misipele Tofilau, Lauie Sila and Natalie Faitala
Fa'ataupati Arrangement by Vau Atonio and Misipele Tofilau
Tali Maia Misipele Tofilau. Vocalists: Lauie Sila, Vau Atonio
The Willow Song Composed and performed by Irene Ongoongo.
Vocalists: Irene Ongoongo, Victoria Schmidt
'Ofaange 'a e 'Otua Traditional Tongan hymn, tutored by Uluilakepa and Kakile Leha  
Musicians Misipele Tofilau, Xaris Tofilau, Lauie Sila, Tana Aiono, Vau Atonio, Irene Ongoongo, Victoria Schmidt.

Script Advisor Professor Michael Neill
Wardrobe Ilaisaane Leha
Set design The Black Friars
Prompt/Wardrobe Iunisi Bayley Johansson
Lighting and Sound Operator Marc Edwards

2hrs 20 mins, incl. interval

Comic tragedy

Review by Lynn Freeman 12th Jun 2009

The last Othello staged at Downstage was set in the time of the Māori Land Wars with Othello a Māori leader of a Pakeha army.  Here all the cast are Polynesian (which somewhat blurs the Race issue inherent in the play, though the director in her notes says it’s about Othello not being Venetian rather than being of a different hue). 

The production has a contemporary feel – the weapons of choice are torches and guns rather than swords.  When the Polynesian-ness is allowed to come through, it works like crazy – the pre- war dance, Othello and Desdemonda’s dance, the Tongan hymn, the astonishing fight sequences, the Cook Island drumming – these are the high points of the show.

The production needs a lot more of Polynesia in it, that’s the thing.  There is a degree of conservatism and restraint in the production that stops it reaching its full potential.  More Polynesia in the Othello would really make it what’s promised on the programme cover – Shakespeare as you’ve never seen it before!

You also know there’s a problem when people giggle when Desdemona is killed by her husband.  Hint to director – having a ‘corpse’ lie on their back means the audience is going to see them breath and twitch, it really does ‘kill’ the moment.  Iago’s overplaying of the villain’s role at times also took the tragedy out of some key scenes.  It is a tragedy not a comedy, after all.

So there are the problem areas, all of which can be sorted out, as can the clumsy set design.

There is more to say about the production’s strengths and likeability.  Semu Filipo has terrific presence (and what a voice!) and his Othello is commanding when needed, and tender when it counts.  Nice counterpoint with his Desdemona, Victoria Schmidt, who unlike some of her colleagues underplays rather than overplays her role.  This young actress shows good judgment and surprising maturity for a new graduate. 

Despite going overboard on the meaningful glares, Vau Atonio makes a good fist of the arch-villain Iago, while Cassio is a loveable fool as played by Lauie Sila.

There’s a good sense of ensemble and commitment from The Black Friars and I look forward to seeing the next production from them.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


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Racial undertones do not register

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 05th Jun 2009

Othello Polynesia begins intriguingly with some Cook Island drumming and a mimed prologue of the secret marriage of Othello and Desdemona. Behind them hangs a vast tapa cloth and beneath it a tapa covered rostrum that serves as a table and later a bed. The setting is simple as is the production as a whole, though the staging becomes entirely predictable.

As the heavily edited version of the famous play quickly progresses we realize that Othello is a Palagi: Iago tells Brabantio that "an old white ram is tupping your black ewe." By casting Semu Filipo as Othello the racial undertones of the play, which are outlined in a programme note, are undermined.

Though he is dressed in white (Iago is in black, of course) he is clearly Polynesian for he dances to the manner born with Desdemona and then in a boisterous quintet with Roderigo, Cassio, Montano and Iago when they celebrate their victory in Cyprus. At no point is he marginalized or does he appear the outsider, the awkward foreigner in an alien culture.

The songs further confuse the issue: The Cannikin Clink, the soldiers’ drinking song, becomes a Polynesian song but Desdemona’s Willow Song sung just before her murder is sung in English (and very touchingly too by Victoria Schmidt in a an elegant performance). It is also never clear when the events are taking place what with wooden daggers, a beer bottle, an Elizabethan purse, and revolvers.

Vau Antonio avoids the mistake of many Iagos who make him evil incarnate; the casualness and coolness of his plotting of Othello’s downfall is far more frightening than any obvious devil. The planting of the seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind is nicely done.

Semu Filipo’s Othello is to start with a jovial general. His speech to the Senate about his military prowess is almost matter-of-fact but when Iago’s poison starts to work the changes in Othello are believable, and though he tackles the almost impossibly difficult speeches (‘Whip me, ye devils’ and ‘Farewell the tranquil mind’) bravely, he made the ‘It is the cause’ quietly moving before the production marred the final moments of the play.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 



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Feeding on the corrosive doubt of self and others

Review by John Smythe 03rd Jun 2009

Steeping Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy Othello in the Polynesian culture, with an all-Pasifika cast, works a treat. The sense of an island community where reputation means everything, where being shamed is as bad as it gets, serves the story well. It offers a credible context for the provocation of jealousy, the universally recognised "green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on", to a level where anger soon escalates into murderous rage.

"We haven’t focussed so much on the domestic tragedy," said director Michelle Johansson on TV3’s Nightline last night. "We’re focussed on race, identity and brotherhood; warriors … and those are themes that we want to bring out of our Othello."

"Othello is a play of diametrically opposed absolutes," a programme note headed "Race" concludes, "and in the protagonist the audience is presented with both good and evil; love and hate – BLACK AND WHITE."

The play is still set in Venice and Cyprus. The only text change has been to reverse "black" and "white". Thus Iago tells Brabantio that "Even now … an old white ram is tupping your black ewe." (I, i, 89-90) And by the time the "moor", Othello, has let Iago convince him that Desdemona is cheating on him with his lieutenant, Cassio, he wonders if it is because "I am white and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have", that she has strayed. (III, iii, 265-7) For that I take it we should read that he is not in touch with the way her ‘in-group’ converses.

The colour-coding of clothing is not, however, inverted. Iago and Roderigo (whose unrequited love of Desdemona allows Iago to manipulate him) wear black while Othello, Desdemona and Cassio – the Florentine – all wear white. (Others wear patterned clothes.) So black=bad; white=good, at least until the good moor goes bad.

In the first production of Othello Polynesia (Fale Pasifika, University of Auckland, mid-February 2008), although the actor who played Othello could pass as Palagi, I understand he played it Polynesian.

This time – with just 3-week’s rehearsal! – Semu Filipo takes the role. He makes a superb job of it too and, being of Samoan and Tokelauan descent, in every well-modulated phase of his decline from noble hero to deranged murderer, he presents as Pasifika through-and-through.

So do they all, in what comes across as a hermetically sealed community. No-one is non-Polynesian. What, then, has race got to do with it?

This Othello can dance (an eager rooster tailing his hip-twitching chook), sing, fight, speak and orate Pasifika-style with the best of them, and the power those cultural dimensions bring to the play feeds strongly into the passions that drive the plot to its tragic end.

Yet the text tells us he and Cassio are outsiders, and this is what Iago plays upon to insult, vilify and demonise them, in revenge for Othello’s promoting of Cassio to Lieutenant over him. The only way I can reconcile it all, then, is to see them as coming from different island or tribal groups, which allows Iago his ‘fear or difference’ but leaves the black / white aspect relating only to the good / bad values. But let that be …

The whole cast has a good understanding of the text and their roles and while the Polynesian accents and cadences may mean some ears don’t get every word, the tenor of each scene is clear from the way they inhabit the action.

Vau Antonio’s Iago is a matter-of-fact, sociopathic villain who relishes the escalation of violence and has no jot of moral qualm. A minimalist drop of the brow moves him from "honest Iago" to conniving, contriving villain. Lauie Sila’s Cassio is large, relaxed, a lovely singer and easily able to look after himself in a fight.

Victoria Schmidt brings a natural stature, deep-set ‘goodness’ and innocent trust to Desdemona. By comparison her maid Emilia, as played by Irene Ongoongo, is clearly ‘walking on eggshells’, craving husband Iago’s approval while fearing his next dismissal or outburst. Ongoongo’s composition for ‘The Willow Song’, played by her on guitar and sung by both women, offers an oasis of beauty before the brutality takes over.

Tani Aiono (Roderigo), Misipele Tofilau (Brabantio), Tavai Fa’asavalu (Montano) and Asalemo Tofete (joining the ensemble at the last moment to play the Duke), all bring credibility to their roles. While director Michelle Johansson must be credited with bringing great coherence to this production, she needs to tell herself to bring more dimension to her own rendition of Cassio’s mistress Bianca (e.g. play it as if she truly loves him, so that her "O Cassio!" on finding him badly wounded elicits something more than a laugh).  

Unintended laughs also need to be avoided by bringing firearms into the action earlier so that their sudden use – in a ‘modern Polynesia’ that apparently includes cloth coin purses and parchment scrolls – does not undermine the climactic drama.

Radical editing of the text keeps things moving throughout but robs the end of any opportunity to dwell on the tragic outcome or get value from watching a mute Iago face the enormity of his actions. On balance, however, it is quite refreshing for them to get on with it without over-stating the juicy bits, although we have to keep our wits about us to emotionally engage with the increasing injustice.

The fights with sticks, be they practice or in earnest, and the full-on martial arts bouts are superbly staged and far more dramatic than any violence done with blade or barrel. And the music – mostly arranged by Tupapa’a Maea and Misipele Tofilau, with Misipele and Xaria Tofilau providing most of the live music, sometimes joined by other cast members – enriches the soundscape greatly.

Over all the brilliance of the Bard shines through, compelling us to contemplate afresh how corrosive the doubting of self and others can be.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


Liz Minogue June 6th, 2009

I agree with your review.  This production was very effectively set in Pasifika culture.  The drums, dances, music (original composition of The Willow Song) were all magical, as was the startling physicality of these big men hurling themselves around the stage in the fight scene.  The leads of Othello and Iago were well-cast. Hard to believe that this Othello was last seen (by me) in Show of Hands galloping from the fish 'n' chip shop back to the car yard...a man who can play both comedy and tragedy is a truly skilled actor.  Othello's mishearing of Cassio's boasting about Bianca was made all the more believable as he was played as still recovering from the after-effects of his fit.  Desdemona was played with strength and dignity.  What a pity then that the other women were so weak.  Emilia was too scatty and brittle - she needs to be older, more worldly wise than the innocent and pure Desdemona. And the director casting herself as Bianca was just farcical.  Bianca is meant to be a voluptuary, a woman of sensual and fiery passion - as one of my group said, this Bianca "had all the acting ability of a carrot".  I know the director has said Bianca is merely "a ploit device" but the contrast between the three women in the play is one that needs to be convincingly shown. A rethink of the portrayal of Bianca is essential to give a uniform strength to this production...and please...do not have Desdemona help Emilia to fold clothes while they talk...

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