20 October 2015


Melbourne Festival & UnionPay International
17 October 2015
Sumner Theatre
to 19 October

Sydney season: 23, 24 & 25 October. Details: sydneyfestival.org.au.

Desdemona. Melbourne Festival. Photo by Mark Allan

The Melbourne Festival production of Peter Sellars Desdemona sold out. With reactions ranging from  "tedious" – there were walk outs and some impressive snoring – to genius, it's been talked about a lot. I'm in the genius camp. I was engrossed, fascinated and enchanted by a work that's equally as meditative and relaxing as it's demanding and forceful.

American Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison and Malian musician Rokia Traoré wrote their reflection on Shakespeare's Othello via email.

Set in an afterlife where people become their true selves, the now-adult Desdemona meets the woman who brought her up, her mother's slave Barbary – referenced once in the text. Traoré sings as Barbary, with two female backing vocalists and two male musicians, and Tina Benko speaks Morrison's text as Desdemona.

The contrast is far more than the obvious black and white. Traoré sings like there's nothing guarding her emotions. It's music that is felt more than heard and the projected translations of her songs are barely necessary. Benko relies on the meanings of her words. Her Desdemona is trying to break free of what she wanted to see as true love and hides behind a wall of anger and confusion that is torn down even when she doesn't want it to be.  Both remarkable performances feed the other without diluting each other's power or story.

In this place they are able to see their relationship through the eyes of the other. Barbary – which wasn't her real name; it was what the English called Africa – saw herself as a slave, with no rank and no choice, who did whatever child The Desdemona wanted. Desdemona saw Barbary as her real mother, her best friend, and the only person who loved and comforted her. She also saw her position as young woman "on the cusp of unmarriageability" as one where her choices were as limited as Barbary's. However, she wanted to love like Barbary and chose a man worthy of her. She married Othello, the only black man she'd met.

Desdemona also meets and shares her meetings with the other dead, including her servant Emilia, her mother, Othello's mother and Othello. Knowing the story helps, but this work is about the relationships between characters so it's not necessary

I haven't read Othello well, but this production let me see it from perspectives that I had never have thought of. And this is the heart of how Sellars creates theatre.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

And here's an extra reflection on its director Peter Sellars.

In the middle of an amazing Melbourne Festival program – one that has taken me by surprise – my favourite hour, so far,  has been Peter Sellars's artist talk on a Friday afternoon.

I've been a fan of Sellars since I saw his production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, set in New York's Trump Towers, on the tv in the 1990s. (Who'd have thought then what Trump'd be trying to do now). Even on a tiny screen with subtitles, I was totally engaged in a story that felt like it was written for the world I lived in. It made me look at opera differently.

Then I discovered his work with composer John Adams (I want every opera – every theatre – experience to leave me feeling like Nixon in China does) and was beyond excited when he was apointed director of the 2002 Adelaide Festival. That appointment didn't have a happy ending, but when I asked Sellars about it, he said that surely being rejected by a dull conservative government for programming community and Indigenous work was a good thing.

At his talk, he told us how Desdemona started many years ago as at a long lunch with Morrison and him mentioning Othello's inherent racism and it being a text past its "use-by date". Toni had some things to say about that. Sellars went on to create an Othello set in Washington, just after Obama was elected, and Morrison responded with Desdemona.

Sellars – who has a mohawk perfect for a receding hairline, wears bright print shirts and beads, and hugs every person he meets like they are a long-lost friend –  talks about art as using collaboration, skill, craft and sophistication to create a space that preciously didn't exist.

This space, in his case a stage, is where people come to meet and discuss. It's a space that defines what it means to be human and lets us see the world from another person's perspective. It's all about perspective. He says how one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist, so theatre is about finding ways to share other perspectives and find the common and inclusive place where we are all human.

Or, "It's like telling your father something they don't want to hear."

I have days where I am sick of the abuse and eyerolling I get when I talk about missing voices on stage, discuss the politics and assumptions undermining a production, or despair that I want theatre to be something that questions rather than distracts us for an hour or so. I have plenty of distractions in my life, I want to see theatre that shows me something I haven't seen or thought about before; I want to see the world though someone else's eyes.

As his perspective of Othello changed when he saw it through Toni's eyes, Sellars invites us to see Desdemona through the eyes we may never have thought of seeing it through.