Reimagining Shakespeare

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The Magic Hour explores the duality of identity through a Kathakali interpretation of Othello

The Magic Hour.Indian Link

DESDEMONA PRAYS

DESDEMONA

But while I say one prayer!

OTHELLO

It is too late.

The Magic Hour.Indian Link 

“What a nonsense play…so long it’s going on!” Face covered in Kathakali makeup, in a yellow suit topped with a fedora, our loquacious quasi master of ceremonies “Peter Pillai” has just interrupted one of the most dramatic, blood-curdling scenes of Shakespeare, the murder of Desdemona by Othello.

In this version, however, Desdemona is an Odissi dancer, who uses mudras (the language of hand gestures in Indian classical dance) as she speaks. Her first lines in the performance are in Sanskrit – she only switches to English when exhorted to do so by her father Brabantio, who, not long before, has performed a majestic Kathakali piece, in a yellow suit jacket over full dance costume (his other persona is Peter Pillai).

The Magic Hour.Indian Link

“No, we’re not doing misogynist murder mystery swami charanam…this is not the way to resolve the problem.” Pillai then amiably tells our actors to hug and make up. It’s a twist you don’t see coming, but one that makes you feel like you’ve woken up from a strange, suffocating dream. And it’s a relief, to be honest.

The Magic Hour, directed by Kathakali dancer Arjun Raina, and performed by Circero’s Circle Theatre Company (founded by actor-producer Cherian Jacob) is taglined in the program as “Shakespeare’s Othello reinvented as the death of Iago”. And it’s indeed that and more. Using the gestures, facial expressions and props of Odissi, Kathakali and the Japanese avant-garde dances of Butoh and Bodyweather, The Magic Hour playfully yet sincerely questions, reflects on and pokes holes in Shakespeare’s classic tale of jealousy and revenge. It kills Iago, but it also refashions the raw material of theatre, inserting Australian and Indian references into Shakespeare’s script, openly interrogating the work’s racial politics, and letting the dance and music of lands Shakespeare only hints at in his plays tell the story.

The Magic Hour.Indian Link

American-born Odissi dancer Lillian Warrum plays Desdemona, and opens the performance of The Magic Hour with a complex dance on Shiva that is executed with power, precision and grace. Two men come out to watch her – Othello, played by Los Angeles-trained actor Ezekiel Day, and Iago, played by physical theatre performer and Bodyweather dancer Peter Fraser. Day, dressed in army fatigues, does a solid job as the brooding, insecure Moor of Venice, but Fraser’s Iago is a testimony to the power of facial expression in dance, as he executes a piece to rhythmic music that simmers and seethes with malice, using only a black sheet and his mobile features.

The Magic Hour.Indian Link

And then of course there’s the hybrid Peter Pillai, played by Arjun Raina. Part dancer, part amiable uncle, part proud immigrant, part tortured child of colonisation, inelegant and idiosyncratic, he tells us not to mind his accent, demonstrates the nine rasas, or emotional flavours, of Indian classical dance, and declares that it’s “all that evil whitefella Iago’s fault”.

Dancing Kathakali alongside him is English Butoh and Bodyweather performer Helen Smith. Smith goes on to embody the tortured, murderous spirit of Othello, in a Butoh performance that is both passionately dramatic and deliberately subversive.

The Magic Hour.Indian Link

As Pillai tells us with glee and wonder, the black Othello is attempting to kill Desdemona as “white-faced” Helen, to the voice-over of his “colonised-Indian voice”. Showing a “black fella” to be “so cruel” is something he lashes out at: “In his play Desdemona is dead. Othello is dead…but Iago, a whitefella – not dead!”

So, for the first time, in the world of The Magic Hour, Iago dies.

And, through Lillian Warrum’s Odissi ‘Moksha’ piece, Desdemona is finally given her prayer.

The Magic Hour.Indian Link

 Photos: Darren Gill