It is difficult to know what to make of IAGO, Douglas Hackett’s debut play for Midsumma Festival. Part of the difficulty is that it’s his first play, meaning that many of its faults are to be expected from playwrights in their juvenilia: overwrought ideas, lack of subtlety, an unclear structure. Likewise, there are glimpses of potential.
Put forward as a ‘modern re-visioning of William Shakespeare’s Othello’, it tells the story of Joe (Willem Whitfield) and Gold (Gideon Mzembe); two men who meet in a production of Othello somewhere in Sydney. Playing the titular Moor, Gold is a seasoned professional, a charismatic mix of bravado and arrogance. Joe, the scheming Iago, is his meek counterpart; green and trepidatious.
The pair strike up a love affair while rehearsing in Gold’s bougie Sydney apartment overlooking the Sydney Opera House. There’s a lot about the 70-minute show that doesn’t quite add up, but Gold affording ocean views on an actor’s salary is perhaps the most humorous (at one point he speaks of living in a share house in Surry Hills when he first began acting as if it was a hovel and not one of the most expensive suburbs in Australia).
In between flirtatious line-readings and long-winded discussions of what makes Shakespeare so canonical (‘language’, comes the generalised reply), are various moments of interpretative dance. On their own, these dance numbers are fine, if a little trite, but what they are meant to signify is so clear as to be immediately boring. Subtlety is tossed by the wayside as the throes of lust are evoked by a number set to El Tango De Roxanne, or a fight to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, each presented with a self-seriousness that teeters on the comical.
Ultimately, it is a matter of clarity and focus. The show spends a lot of time introducing disparate motifs and symbols, for example, but not enough time clarifying what purpose they serve dramaturgically. It returns most often to the Statue of David.
But what this statue has to do with Othello, or what it might mean to these characters, is once again both unclear and too obvious. If the Statue of David is intended, as per the show’s pitch, to examine ‘male sexuality’ and ‘manhood’, then it is only a generalised evocation of these themes. This is the script’s primary problem; that it ties specific motifs to general ideas, seeming at once overwrought and underwritten.
Joe, turning to the hazel-eyed Gold, speaks of feeling ‘the ocean’ and noting his ‘pale blue eyes’. Mid-way through a fight and Gold screams that ‘there was no this or that’, or in a moment of deep reflection, that he is ‘not what I am’.
Too often does the show rest on these kinds of generalised, ill-conceived platitudes or ideas rather than expand on the details specific to its characters’ experiences. The time spent conceptualising the Statue of David, for instance, would be better served expanding on what is specific to Othello’s function as an intertext.
But there is a moment early on in IAGO when Joe and Gold are rehearsing when the stars aligned at last. Mzembe is a charismatic performer with a magnetic stage presence. Rehearsing together, he commands Joe to repeat a line, before rebuking him for limply reaching out to touch him. ‘Kiss or kill’, he tells Joe; those are the only two options for any physical offer.
Suddenly, it’s clear what Othello might offer the show as an intertext. As Joe nervously repeats the line and the pair inch closer together, there’s a glimpse of something electric, something that mines a general intertext to evoke a specific dynamic. If this show reappears, I hope it finds more opportunities for more moments like these.
Cracked Actors Theatre, 34 Lakeside Drive, Albert Park
Performance: Sunday 4 February 2024
Season: 31 January – 4 February 2024
Image: Willem Whitfield and Gideon Mzembe to star in IAGO – photo by Richard Whitfield
Review: Guy Webster