Fri, Sep 19, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Othello redux: the new comedy of errors

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

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Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Godot Theater Company (果陀劇場) has taken on the huge task of staging a Chinese-language version of Othello. The production premiered at the end of last month in Kaohsiung, and yesterday opened at the Metropolitan Hall in Taipei. Godot has had plenty of experience adapting Western works for the Chinese stage, but a work by Shakespeare was an especial challenge, for which they brought in the talents of two of Taiwan’s greatest stage actors, Li Li-qun (李立群) and Chin Shih-jie (金士傑).

The show has been enormously anticipated, and a final dress rehearsal on Thursday played before an almost full house of friends of the company, theatrical insiders and media. The celebratory atmosphere was very much in evidence, but, sad to say, the show itself was less than riveting.

I had gone into the performance with some degree of trepidation, having seen Li in the early rehearsals of the production done up in boot polish makeup and Chin sporting a prosthetic nose that gave him a sly look. This would have been bad enough, but this literalism seems to have been carried through into many other aspects of the production as well, to the considerable detriment of any real dramatic interest.

One of the great challenges of the production had been to produce a script that would be accessible to the masses. Contemporary Chinese vernacular is used throughout, but the writers seemed uncertain of how close they should keep to the letter of the original. It was in the occasional departures, all too few, that the language gained some natural vigor, but otherwise actors where left floundering with lines that were at best plodding, and sometimes so unnatural as to approach parody.

PERFORMANCE NOTES

WHAT: Godot Theater Company’s Othello

WHEN: Today until Sept. 27, daily at 7:30pm; tomorrow, Sunday and Sept. 28 at 2:30pm

WHERE: Metropolitan Hall (城市舞台), 25, Bade Rd Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市八德路3段25號)

TICKETS: NT$1,000 to NT$4,000 available through NTCH ticketing


The desire to bring stars to the stage clearly outweighed other considerations. Li and Chin showed flashes of their prodigious talents, but neither could sustain roles for which they were unsuited. Neither was convincing as veteran soldiers of bloody campaigns, for both are bookish and articulate rather than physical actors. Li’s Othello never had a sufficiently commanding physical presence, and Chin worked so hard at being sly, seemingly unconvinced that his words could achieve this effect, that he created a parody that might have been funny had it been intentional.

One of the greatest difficulties that the play failed to overcome is the inherent absurdity of the story. Take away the intricately layered language of Shakespeare, and what is left is the story of a rather stupid and jealous man who kills his wife. As Othello works through his own tortuous logic to convince himself of his wife’s infidelity, there is more laughter than tears among the audience. Without the heroic and the tragic, what’s left? To make the dialogue accessible, the producers have pretty much gutted the play, and the best efforts of the actors could not save it.

All this is not helped by the bombastic score that simply couldn’t leave any emotional point alone, constantly building tension with deep bass notes and underlining tender emotion with caressing violins. Once again, it’s as if the producers can’t trust the script to get the point across. So intrusive was the music, and so crass (one section sounded as if it was lifted from Phantom of the Opera) that it would hardly have been surprising if the characters had suddenly burst into song. It would at least have been diverting, and Godot has a reputation for producing musicals.

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