Timeless themes

Timeless themes

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Photo: Aimee K Photography

It may be more than 400 years old, but it's clear Shakespeare's Othello is still relevant, writes karly Cox

A United States general is approached by the president to head up a United Nations peacekeeping force in Taiwan, following an invasion by the mainland. You'd be forgiven for thinking this was the plot of a dystopian drama set in the future, perhaps written by a political analyst-turned-playwright - but you'd be wrong. It is in fact the setting for an upcoming production of William Shakespeare's Othello.

A popular choice both for study and performance, Othello's themes include jealousy, love, race relations, war and betrayal, themes which are as relevant today as they were when it was written in 1603. But rather than keep the original, historically accurate setting, director Tom Hope has created a fictional conflict closer to home.

'I thought it was very interesting to equate [the original] to America's position today as the dominant power, playing off against a nascent superpower, in this case China,' says Hope. 'I thought there could be a stand-off over the Straits of Taiwan because it happened in the past and it continues to be a political flashpoint.

'It's just interesting when you look into it, how, what appears to be a situation of Shakespeare's day, actually can translate into what could happen here and now.'

Moving Shakespeare's writing to a modern setting is not a new idea; but Hope's version is particularly effective in both finding inspiration in the original text, and using purely contemporary ideas.

'For example, we use mobile phones: when someone says 'call up so-and-so', it's funny how it works - it's almost as though Shakespeare was writing for the modern day,' he says.

'The other thing we've done is use the music of Green Day,' Hope says. 'They've written really very beautiful and incisive, critical, politically astute songs following the second Iraq war ... I thought this is just the sort of music that these guys would be listening to, whether they're soldiers on the frontline, or [Othello's wife] Desdemona as a 17-year-old. There's a big scene where they all get drunk after the victory, and to have them all singing Green Day songs, instead of some sort of Shakespearian roundelay, just works.'

The original title character is a Moor, a dark-skinned North African, who is a high-ranking officer in the Venetian army, and married to a young, white girl. In this version, he is a black American. For drama teacher Henry Mullins, 25, who plays Othello, much of the appeal of the role was what he calls the colour issue.

'I wanted the opportunity to play someone who, though he was a person of colour, fought his way through, and rose quickly in rank. But still, he was surrounded by that sort of negative aspect,' Mullins says. 'I wanted to be able to have the opportunity to show people that that part of life existed then and still does.

'Things have gotten better, but in parts of the world, people only see certain images. For example, people see me here in Asia and are shocked. They assume things, like that I must play basketball, whereas I could be a lawyer, or whatever,' he says.

'That's why Shakespeare goes on - it's because such a lot of these things translate.'

Even without these resonant themes, Hope stands by his belief that Shakespeare remains as relevant today as ever.

"Shakespeare just is very good at telling a good story," he says.

Othello is presented by Perilous Mouths Entertainment and The Not So Loud Theatre Company. Two other plays will be performed alongside: Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a satire set in 1930s Shanghai which echoes Adolf Hitler's rise to power, and is written in iambic pentameter, like much of Shakespeare's work; and Responsibility, a new play written by Hong Kong-based playwright Adrian Tilley about the Japanese invasion of the territory.

Schools-only shows are available on the mornings of May 19 and 20, with a performance of each show on May 21-23. Visit www.tritheatre.com for more details.

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