A Response: Desdemona | Melbourne Festival and UnionPay International

October 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

There is an insurmountable idealism at the heart of Desdemona, which is its ultimate undoing. Where last week’s, The Roar clearly stipulated that the actors do not speak for all women everywhere, here, the production tends towards mimesis, and collapses All women and All people of colour into the two leading ladies, in order to serve its driving desire to, it would seem, end racism. This noble cause is a dangerous ambition that leads to innumerable issues in execution. Although I saw a preview, this is an analysis of the ideas at work in the piece.

As the titular character walks the underworld in conversation with the dead, she dominates the space and relegates her supporting cast to vehicles to ease her own suffering. The five people of colour have very few words compared to Desdemona and it seems as though their only purpose is to absolve her (and therefore us) of the guilt of hundreds of years of inequality. The conclusion, that love and conversation will make everything better, seems at best naïve and at worse complicit with the systematic subjugation of minorities. Far be for me to tell Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison that her text is problematic; however, in performance, there is a resounding feeling that the conversation is very one sided. The notion, that two women, one white and one black, forgiving each other on stage affects a cathartic experience for the audience is hazardously Platonic — this is the very reason performance is excused from the Republic.

Mark Allan/Melbourne Festival.

Mark Allan/Melbourne Festival.

Tina Benko, in the eponymous role, is perfectly articulate, ethereal, and is commanding in her craft. She enjoys each honeyed word given to her and paces herself with confidence, convinced that the audience will enjoy the two-hours-no-interval production on the basis on her performance alone. And she is often very compelling, regardless of the sometimes novel-esque text. Yet I could not help but want her to stop talking. Not only is her affected voice as Othello himself troubling—imitation of racial patois is commonly frowned upon, is it not? —But the sheer number of words she says means that the entire story revolves around her; she is the key, she is the only name in the title, the others are little more than anonymous extras. And therefore, we cannot help but think that her suffering is more important than others, in this case the suffering of the people of colour on stage — not necessarily these particular people, but within the framework of the text, these actors come to represent an entire people.

Singer-songwriter Rokia Traore provides Desdemona with a musical counterpoint and also serves as the more compelling form of entertainment. Her music is haunting and fills the Sumner with sounds that have possibly never graced the space before. It is a beautiful chance for us, the people of Melbourne, to see this kind of production on such a prestigious stage, and we are lucky that the Melbourne Festival has provided us with the opportunity. When the two, Traore and Benko, finally engage, the show takes on its most impressive edge. Traore, as Desdemona’s maid Barbary, says, “you are white and I am black”, Benko’s response, “so?” sums up the inability for those in a position of privilege to understand the suffering of others. Barbary then responds, “so you do not know me; you have never known me.” After over an hour of monologues and duologues-for-one, this moment is refreshing and seems to justify Desdemona’s constant speech—we have been complicit in indulging one person’s voice and here, we are lead to believe, we are about to receive a payoff—; however, Desdemona continues to talk beyond Barbary’s objection, undoing the magic of the moment. She explains that they are both slaves but in slightly different cages: one that of a woman in a man’s world, the other, a slave. As a white male, it is not my place to instruct others how to feel, though at this point I felt quite offended by the suggestion that #alllivesmatter — an idea that was never really in dispute and erases the importance of #blacklivesmatter.

Despite the play’s author being a person of colour, and a woman, when a white person spoke the words on stage, I could not help but feel that the conversation did not ‘make it all better’. There is so much more still to be done and the reconciliation between, literally a slave and a master, does not fix injustice. Just because a master was kind to a slave does not mean that there was not a slave and a master. One is clearly in a position of power. The play’s inability to grapple with intersectionality was profoundly disappointing. The level of idealism bordered on delusional. It cannot be stressed enough: there were five people of colour on the stage and one white person, and it was the white person that did almost all of the talking. They were the characters I wanted to hear from and although one could argue that a critic should not review the play they wished they saw but rather the one they did, when presented with these characters and actors and denied their voice I became frustrated by their lack of autonomy and power, beyond serving the white woman and her story.

The back of the stage was covered with clear mesh, from top to bottom. Onto this was projected text, mostly translations of Rokia Traore’s songs, poetic and lyrical. The mesh itself was sometimes white and sometimes black, the text was mostly white. What was more interesting than the mesh itself was the lighting behind it. Like the ground that is not the ground, there was something beyond the words, something beyond what is perceived as the end, something out of the audience’s reach. It was here that the play seemed to have weight. And in being denied access to this more complex, more colourful and more fluid space, we were denied a real interrogation of race and how race and gender interact.

Mark Allan/Melbourne Festival.

The lighting behind the mesh reminded me of another play this year, Declan Greene’s Malthouse production I Am A Miracle. Here too was an interrogation of inequality. It too contained a ‘heart of darkness’ story—in Desdemona Othello talks of his days as a child soldier, in I Am A Miracle a Dutch man goes up river into a slave colony—and attempts to speak across history to a shared humanity. In Greene’s play, however, we encounter the sublime. The curtain is drawn back and the light overwhelms us. While Green’s text is not perfect, it at least acknowledges the shortcomings of mankind and declares that all anyone can do is ‘be better’ and that we should start again if we can: reset because the puzzle is too complex. Morrison’s play seems to end with a sense of accomplishment. As though the battle is over and the ‘good’ guys have won.

Death is eternal. Perhaps somewhere in Hades we will all meet and spend eternity talking to those we have wronged, those who have suffered, and those we did not even realise have been affected by our actions. But we are not dead yet. We are alive. And injustice is endemic. In I Am A Miracle three angels watch over the world, unable to intervene. The tragedy of their inaction, and inability to act, spurs a kind of desire to go outside and live, to help someone; in Desdemona the dead talk and seem to forgive each other. This idealism is an apologist take on living prejudice. The production seems to want to pardon us our sins — in reality we are not forgiven.

There is something to be said of the production’s length. At over two hours with no interval it offers the audience a pensive moment away from the furore of the modern world. The Conversation explores this more thoroughly. The comfortable, cushioned seats of the Sumner provided me with an opportunity to relax and settle into the work. After twenty minutes or so of wondering when the pace was going to pick up, I found myself at ease. We are not often afforded the opportunity to see such a work on a main stage. The confidence of the performers was astounding and the actors were unperturbed by walkouts. It was impressive to watch their commitment.

I found myself tuning in and out and watching lighting changes as though through a daze, letting the music sink in. The musicians were remarkable and enabled a mediative atmosphere for the audience. The stage itself was covered in long florescent lights, microphones, empty jars and bottles, and light bulbs. Still more light bulbs hung from the ceiling like ice drops suspended. It was perfunctory and pretty; although I observed a number of people in the audience wearing sunglasses at times and I myself moved a dozen rows back after being confronted by the glare of a florescent bulb. If only the production itself was as confronting.

Perhaps the point of Desdemona was not to be confronting and that is to be commended. Not all plays about difference must be violent, though often this is where they go. This one certainly did not interrogate ideas or thrust judgments upon the audience. Instead it was calm, durational, and fragile. While the words of this piece may be ones that “every Shakespearean actress has just been dying to say”, there are, altogether, too many words being said only by one person in what should be, at least, a conversation.

There are myriad conversations about gender in Melbourne currently and there should be more; there is room for more. A recent production of Athens Reborn, a modern verse text set at a time when Spartan men have overrun Athens, was a solid interrogation of women in Shakespeare and will hopefully be seen again. Desdemona sits somewhere here as well, rewriting history to empower the disenfranchised and those traditionally used only to serve a straight white male protagonist. Desdemona engages in both gender and race, which is something that Melbourne should be doing more often, but in a way that seems unsatisfactory. Perhaps my opinion on this matter is irrelevant, not being either a woman or a person of colour, so I would be very interested to talk to people in these demographics that have also seen the show. The ambition in this piece is admirable; however, having such an idealistic approach, and one that seems to end the discussion by proclaiming resolution, is, in my opinion, unhelpful and potentially dangerous.


Text: Toni Morrison

Music and Barbary: Rokia Traoré

Director: Peter Sellars

Desdemona: Tina Benko

Ngoni: Mamah Diabaté

Vocals: Fatim Kouyaté

Vocals: Virginie Dembelé

Kora: Toumani Kouyaté

Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls

Sound Design: Alexis Giraud

Sound Engineer: Antoine Audibert

Production Stage Manager: Anne Dechêne

Assistant Stage Manager: Pamela Salling

Producer: Diane J. Malecki


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