Shakespeare’s Othello Gets a Cultural Update


  • La Mama Theatre, 2nd – 12th June 2016

We were promised an “exciting and flamboyant dance theatre interpretation of Shakespeare’s Othello” in The Magic Hour. Cicero’s Circle brought Arjun Raina – the director, a trained Kathakali (traditional Indian dance theatre form) dancer and actor; together with local Butoh (Japanese dance form) dancer Helen Smith, Bodyweather dancer Peter Fraser, an Odissi (Indian traditional dance) dancer Lillian Warrrum, and two actors Ezekeil Day and Cherian Jacob to use the appropriation of Shakespeare’s text as common ground, fusing it with Asian art forms. The program states that “a rich multicultural theatre has been created with a view to amaze, amuse, stimulate and move us.”

A show that contains such diverse art forms in style, and in variety is enough in itself to generate curiosity for a performance lover to go, and watch at least once and see what magic it creates. How will these diverse art forms blend seamlessly together? How will the director incorporate and use the talent and skill of the individual performers to tell a story such as Othello? What will the artists bring to the show that’s uniquely individual and yet fits in with the overall picture in the context of the text and the other forms? These were some of the questions in my mind as I went to the opening night. There was an excited buzz in the foyer, and seemed like all others were equally intrigued to see what would be presented in the approximately 105 min long show (including interval).

One doesn’t really know what to expect of a show like this, and the lack of knowledge of such deeply traditional art forms means that the only criterion then becomes, whether it manages to keep you engaged.

There were a lot of elements in the show that worked really well. The show gets full credit for its uniqueness of concept. The costumes had a great visual appeal and Raina’s kathakali costume with the painted face stole the show there. His skill in describing the navarasa or nine emotions as used in Kathakali, while Helen Smith tried to emulate him, was one of the highlights of the show. Warrum’s Odissi dance was equally powerful and she managed to mesmerise the audience with her solo pieces, as did Helen Smith with her Butoh.

The appropriation of Shakespeare and introducing a twist was a bold move, which sounded good in theory. Purists would argue that any attempt at changing a Shakespeare text unless really well done, is a crime. It was however, an interesting choice. The manner of presentation – which changed from narration and MC’ing into interpretive scenes from Othello was perhaps one thing that could have been tightened up to make the show seamless. It felt like the journey went in and out of the created world too often and broke the continuity of the narrative. All the energetic bits however, once they got into their flow, were really engaging to watch. This meant that the overall running time seemed a bit too long.

Perhaps a future season or continued exploration may help smoothen things out as the group progresses with its journey.  One did get a sense that having fewer art forms might have made the experience richer, however that’s a balance for the group to find. The Magic Hour may not quite have created magic this time, but holds promise. I would hope that Cicero’s Circle continues with this bold theme of using diverse forms, developing the positives and finding the right balance in one of its future productions.

The Magic Hour can be viewed next at the Footscray Community Arts Centre from 24th – 26th August. More details here.

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