by David Robinson.
State Theatre Company of SA winds up its 2014 season with a new take on a classic tale of racism, jealousy and revenge, set in a contemporary military environment. Directed by Nescha Jelk, Othello is deemed one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies with Othello, himself, being one of literature’s utmost anti-heroes.
The Clothesline speaks with Ashton Malcolm, who performs the role of Desdemona. Being her STC debut, we ask about her experience so far, especially when compared to work with other companies?
“I devise all of my own work; when I’m devising I have to do everything,” Ashton begins. “The main luxury of working with a company like this is that I just get to act. It’s been really nice having other people organise schedule, costume and all of those things. I get to focus on playing with the other actors and that’s been a lovely luxury for me.
“I love wearing all the different hats but, especially with a play as big as this, it’s nice to work with such an amazing team of artists and to focus on acting for a little while.”
It is a difficult enough challenge to be really good at any one thing, and a whole lot tougher when you are trying to be all things. It must be a great release for you to simply focus on your acting.
“Definitely, and especially when working with a director like Nescha because she is so collaborative,” Ashton says. “She invites actors to have strong input, so I’m still involved in every process of the work. It’s nice to approach that from an actor’s perspective.”
You’ve worked with Nescha previously, haven’t you?
“When I graduated from Flinders University Drama Centre in 2009, I co-founded Milk Theatre Company with Nescha and two other women – Sarah Dunn and Michal Kedem,” she recalls. “A few years ago we did a production of Hamlet together, with another theatre company, and it was pretty amazing. I got to play Ophelia, in a shed in a back yard in Croydon. It’s really exciting to be working with her on Shakespeare again, in another modern adaptation but this time with State Theatre Company.”
How has your association and relationship with Shakespeare’s work developed over time? Is it something special for you, or just another job?
“I’ve always loved Shakespeare, even in high school, where I really loved reading and performing his work,” Ashton says. “After I graduated from the drama centre I went to the United States and worked with Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts. It was a month long, intensive training program which was full-on – six days a week, fourteen hours a day. I just loved it.
“I love contemporary work but there’s something incredible about Shakespeare’s language,” she continues. “It’s so epic; you have to use your whole body and experience to rise to the language. There’s an amazing freedom in that; one that you don’t necessarily find in other texts.
“These plays were written hundreds of years ago and the themes are still so relevant. With Othello you’re talking about love, jealousy, desperation, racism and sexism. Unfortunately all of those things are still entirely prevalent in our society. It takes a pretty amazing playwright to be able to write works that can still be relevant. There is something really special about getting to perform this piece.”
There is, obviously, an enduring quality about much of Shakespeare’s work.
“The themes are so universal. Yet, as an actor, there’s great pleasure in getting to explore such huge emotions with such beautiful language. The language really does do the work for you if you commit to it.”
Othello deals with a range of issues and emotions that are common today. Is there any particular theme that this production emphasises?
“Often, Othello is seen as ‘the race play’, meaning it’s about racism and a man who is ostracised due to his race,” Ashton replies. “Something that we’ve all noticed in reading the text is that this play is just as much about gender. In a heavily masculine environment, every woman in this play is treated terribly. Bianca is abused and taken advantage of, Amelia and Desdemona are both killed by their husbands, so to me this play is just as much about gender as it is about race.
“It is not only the way that the women are oppressed, but also the way that the men are oppressed – having to fit in to these masculine roles. Unfortunately, as a young woman, this oppression is something I face in my life every day, outside of the rehearsal room,” she continues. “So, in some ways, it’s been really wonderful to play a role that can address these issues directly.
“Something that Nescha and I have spoken about regarding Desdemona, that we’re really trying to explore, is the whole virgin/whore dichotomy. The way that women are often talked about in contemporary media, and in society in general. This idea about women needing to fit into certain roles that are quite archaic now.
“Through the whole of this play, Desdemona is seen through her father’s eyes; he describes her as being really sweet, quiet and modest,” Ashton says. “Rather than looking at her through the gaze of the men in this play, the way they talk about her, I’ve gone back to what she actually does and says. She is a really incredibly well-educated, funny, strong woman, so I’m trying to find that complexity in her rather than playing her as the classic innocent virgin. I think she’s much more real than that.”
What about the contemporary setting for this production. What does it add to the play?
“I think it adds relevance to the themes,” Ashton suggests. “When people are wearing tights and big, frilly shirts, it distances the audience a little. It’s easy to think that these are problems they had ‘back then’. Whereas, by using a contemporary setting, I think most folks realise that this kind of racism, gender oppression and violence is an entirely contemporary problem. By making it contemporary we can see these themes of domestic violence, unhealthy relationships and jealousy coming to the fore. You start thinking about examples that we see every day and I think it brings it home to the audience.
“Unfortunately we still live in a world where women are very quickly labelled as sluts, regardless of what they may say or do or wear,” she adds. “You might call a man a bit of a ‘stud’ for exhibiting the same behaviour. That’s another thing a contemporary setting brings into focus. I hope this play makes people think about how quickly we judge women.
“I’ve also found it really interesting to explore what contemporary warfare does to men and the way they think; the kind of state that those men are in.”
It must be a wonderful, challenging opportunity.
“It’s incredibly exciting, and it’s such an amazing honour to be playing a role like Desdemona,” Ashton concludes. “It’s the kind of role that you grow up hearing about. It’s really exciting and terrifying to actually put yourself in her shoes and properly explore that.”
State Theatre Company of SA presents Othello at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre at various times from Fri Nov 14 until Sun Nov 30.