In my first experience with Shakespeare Demystified (SD), I walked away from Othello feeling like a contact lens was missing.
A new friend texts me. He’s an American educator, visibly black. He lives in Ipoh and commutes to KL. His text: “Ever since I arrived, I’ve noticed how socially dysfunctional Malaysians can be about race.” To which I reply, “Dude, I’m reviewing a local staging of Othello that somehow avoided talking about the one thing Malaysians can’t help but talk about!”
This is SD’s format: A small troupe of actors condense a three-hour Shakespearean play into 100 powerful minutes or less. With a minimal setup, they perform pivotal scenes sandwiched with discussions that weave scene into plot. The discussion is part paraphrase, part commentary—ie. what critics typically make of characters’ motivations and decisions— and part poseur to the audience, inviting us to think about what we’re watching. There’s a Q&A session after each show. Needless to say, even more is Demystified there. It’s a pretty cool setup.
With that in mind, this isn’t actually a review of SD’s performance; it’s an analysis of the D in the SD. Something about the how Othello was Demystified unsettled me long after I left KLPAC. After wrestling with it, I introduced myself to SD’s Kien Lee and Soon Heng, seeking to distinguish between clarity and speculation.
What I discovered was that SD read Othello very differently than I did. I remember Othello’s story as one of race— namely, the ugly effects of internalised racism on one’s identity. I walked in excited to watch Malaysians react to (possibly) Shakespeare’s most relevant play to us. I expected to unpack our own tangled relationship with race, prejudice, and sabotage. Drama!
Instead, SD minimised the factor of race in Othello’s downfall— therefore minimising the effect race had on the entire story. After talking to Kien Lee and Soon Heng, I discovered this was deliberate. So I present both our viewpoints to you, dear reader, and may you choose your own adventure. Clearly there’s no right or wrong, but where you lean determines the level of SD’s success in demystifying Othello to a diverse audience.
Should race be a priority when demystifying Othello in Malaysia? SD draws influences from other decisions made of Shakespeare’s oeuvre when tackling this question— and they’re Team No.
What SD brings onstage is derived solely from independent continuous research and exploration of the text. “We watched as many different versions of Othello as possible, video recordings, books, lectures. In the National Theatre production broadcast to several countries, Adrien Lester said Othello has nothing to do with skin colour, but about class and social issues. The word ‘Moor’ wasn’t derogatory. Most of the characters treated Othello with respect,” said director Kien Lee.
Besides helming SD’s research, Kien Lee also plays Othello. Moors are typically North African, so race is introduced by explaining why SD’s Othello is a fair man dressed in black costume (and face paint somehow inspired from a Taiwanese tribe). “Not having Othello as a dark-skinned person doesn’t detract from the story or its concerns,” Soon Heng claimed.
“We had difficulty finding someone with the right look who was adaptable to our working style. So we decided to go to the concept of The Otherness. And as we went deeper, we found that race, nationality, religion are just parts of it,” said Kien Lee. “I think if Othello were played by someone overtly darker, the audience might focus just on race,” said Soon Heng, who added: “I think race is a fluid thing, more so in Malaysia. For the less sophisticated, a lack of Othello’s colour means a lesser focus on race. ”
I’m Team Yes, and I’ll risk a lack of sophistication to say it: Race is why I was excited about Othello, and casting a darker person would have helped, but isn’t enough to bring this into sharper focus. Of course the play isn’t just about Othello’s colour. But the story is about his colour. Just as how Malaysians are diverse, but still far from being a post-racial society. Minimising Othello’s race by blending it into an Other In Black was a missed opportunity to demystify Shakespeare in Malaysia on a more resonant level. Then again,
Team Yes and Team No have different ideas of what this audience looks like, since Kien Lee claims “in today’s world, especially in Malaysia, audiences easily see past skin colour unless they are reminded not to.” Not only do I disagree, I’d also recall that just as how Hamlet was the Prince of Denmark and Macbeth was the Tragedy of Macbeth, I believe Shakespeare’s decision to title Othello’s story The Moor Of Venice meant something— instead of the General of Venice, the Wife-Killer of Venice, or even The Tragedy of Othello. Othello is not another all-white Shakespearean story in England. It is the story of a black protagonist in the Mediterranean— not even a slave, but a war general and minority amongst men— who eloped in an interracial marriage. He also had a racist father-in-law (also his business partner). Imagine the number of ways Malaysians could pay attention to a story like this today!
SD aims to “un-scarify” and “bring the Bard closer to a diverse audience.” I imagine such an audience does not have the privilege of digesting the international Othello stagings that informed SD’s post-racial views. But since they weren’t contextualised for Malaysian audiences, the urgency isn’t there for me. Instead I ask,
Don’t we still live in a Malaysia where (multi)racial discrimination is still our reality, where lighter-skinned people are cast as ideals and synonyms of success, and foreigners are labelled either expat or migrant almost entirely based on skin colour? In Malaysia, don’t class and religion sit in the shadows of race? I lean yes. When darker-skinned people beat all odds against them to find opportunities for success, as Othello does, do they become 100% perfect overnight? No. There are cracks that an environment of prejudice is too eager to pry at, claiming that ugly stereotypes win out every time. This is where villains come in, and Iago is arguably Shakespeare’s best. Interracial marriages— unions of love where there is usually fear— are good, right? But Iago subverts love to hate, and turns good into betrayal. Iago’s villainy overshadows the title character in greatness— the avatar of a prejudiced environment that reduces the respectable general to just another unhinged “black ram” in the end. The Othello monologues SD chose revealed this degree of self-loathing. Iago capitalises on this to turn Othello against his wife. To this Malaysian, Othello’s inner environment reads like a guy who’s made it but is too insecure to believe it can’t be easily taken away— how easy for him to believe that his fair wife would cheat on him with someone who looks nothing like him! “Haply, for I am black. And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have, or for I am declined,” he whines. It’s a warning of how invisible warfare against the mindset can be more toxic than visible warfare with guns and battles.
Since SD’s Othello did not forefront race, the ugly effects of internalised racism on one’s racial identity were absent from their edited interpretation— along with Othello’s insecurity, self-loathing, and poor self-esteem. This is where SD and I differ again. Kien Lee chose to play Othello larger and grander than the rest of the cast, “so the audience knows he is not the same as the rest.” The grandeur was amusing and entertaining, but not particularly demystifying. I felt internalising Othello’s feelings about being an Other would have greatly improved Kien Lee’s stage presence, especially in the first half of the show. SD disagreed, saying that “pointing out insecurity in Othello would contort the play.” According to Soon Heng: “Tragic heroes cannot have insecurity as a flaw. By definition, insecurity is not a heroic flaw. An insecurity is a common flaw, and cannot apply to a tragic heroic character.”
Team Yes and Team No demystifies Othello from very different places. Sometimes SD’s attempts connected with me, but not all the way. For instance, I liked that they introduced feminism, but not framing it as a response to the male-dominated patriarchy was another missed opportunity for Malaysia-Shakespeare commonality. Instead, the audience I was in found themselves concerned with feminist issues largely due to the strong female performances. Sandee Chew was particularly compelling as a bitter and accessible Emelia. But SD also severely deemphasised some issues over others, and funnily enough these were issues that could reveal more about our own narratives. Instead, I overheard in the audience—
“Why was Iago so evil anyway?”
“Why is Othello so easy to mess with?”
“Isn’t it hilarious that Othello is so obsessed over a handkerchief?”
And I remembered thinking that accessing the play isn’t necessarily the same as accessing the spaces of these characters.
“Ohmygod, that was soooo much better than that stupid movie we watched,” one teenager in front of me said after the show. SD’s efforts have been generally well-received, Othello included. “A few students from Tenby School Penang said they’d definitely take Othello for A-Levels after watching us. We brought the cast to their campus to meet other A-Level students too,” said Kien Lee (SD was well aware that Othello is currently an A-levels text). “It was a very inspiring discussion for both us and the students.”
If SD is gaining credence as an alternative source of education for students, they need to invest as much meat in the demystification of Shakespeare as they currently do in making his work entertaining. SD could do well to even seek input from local educators. Shakespeare has been done to death, and I think it’s great that SD isn’t excessively localising his work. But if SD could better connect the audience to the characters’ environments, we’d be surprised at how much 1600’s Cyprus has to tell us about life in 2015 Malaysia, and vice versa. Our collective vision could speak volumes more than what foreign lenses have digested for us. The girl I watched the show with had little access to Shakespeare and only chuckled at stray mentions of “Tan Sri Datuk”, “kiasu”, and “cari pasal.” She left the theatre unmoved. I pointed out that she and most of the audience responded to flashes of bahasa rojak in the commentary. “You prefer it, but an audience member once asked: is local slang even necessary? We struggle to find a balance,” Kien Lee answered. I guess it comes down to whether the person asking is part of SD’s intended audience, right? The struggle is that it isn’t enough to know what SD is demystifying, but for whom. At the time of the day when Shakespeare’s plays were staged, the actors could go eye to eye with anyone in the audience. I’m sure they must have thought— Were they really looking at me? Are we looking at ourselves?