Ainu Othello

William Shakespeare, adapted by Kazumi Shimodate
The Shakespeare Company Japan
Tara Theatre

Ai Ishida as Desdemona and Takafumi Mito as Othello Credit: The Shakespeare Company Japan

This visiting Japanese company brings a version of Othello in which the titular General is not black but one of the ethnic minority indigenous to Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido, the Ainu, long subject to discrimination by the Japanese majority, who has married a Japanese woman.

It is set in 1860 with Othello sent to defend territory against the threat from Russia equivalent to his opposing the Turks and the plot and much of the dialogue closely following that of Shakespeare.

It opens with performer on the Mukkuri, a traditional Ainu instrument like a mouth harp, introducing an added scene showing Othello’s marriage to Desdemona. The nuptials are celebrated with appropriate Ainu ritual and dancing, here performed by women of the Pirikap dance group who add a traditional element to other parts of the production and feature as a brooding presence at several key dramatic moments as though a personification of what controls Othello’s life.

The production is staged very simply in front of a colourful woven bamboo hanging and clothed in strikingly patterned traditional garments including bandanas, one of which replaces Shakespeare’s strawberry-embroidered handkerchief: we see it presented when they exchange vows.

Takafumi Mito is an Othello with a strong presence, his playing very natural but heightened with the sonorities and emphases of more traditional Japanese theatre. There is a feeling that his behaviour is directed by a male sense of honour intrinsic in Japanese culture, a man himself too honest to see Iago’s real character.

Isamu Izumori’s Iago is more relaxed and very expressive, sharing his plans with the audience and (according to the surtitle translation) admitting, “I might actually love Othello,” as he seeks to clarify his intentions. He and his wife Emilia are both half Ainu, which adds to the complexity of his actions.

Kate Yamaji’s Emilia, and Ai Ishida’s ultra-innocent Desdemona especially, are much more retiring figures, only in the brief bedtime “Willow Song” scene, when Desdemona sings an Ainu song Othello has taught her, do they fully come into focus and then Emilia’s argument that women have the same needs as men and should be judged by the same standards as men when it comes to desire and fidelity seem to have been softened.

This is a compact version of the play, the essence of the great speeches in briefer language and some adjustments to plot points. It tells the story clearly and under Shimodate and Debo Akibe’s direction holds the attention. In many productions, villain Iago seems to steal the play from upright Othello but here, Mito brings a Kabuki-like authority to his Othello along with a simplicity that doesn’t question his trust in Iago which, set against the lighter touch of Isamu Izumori's compelling Iago, puts him at its centre.

This isn’t the first time Othello has been staged as an Ainu. In 1986, a Philadelphia company staged what they called a “Kabuki Othello” with the character an Ainu. Shimodate’s version however, initially created for a Japanese audience, is a conscious celebration of the Ainu culture that still confronts discrimination in Japan.

But, although Ainu art makes a major contribution to the look of this production with fabric patterns that reminded me of Maori and North West American First Nation cultures (are there connections right through the Pacific rim?), the Pirikap dance group make relatively little choreographic contribution, which seems a shame.

Othello uses some gestures that resemble movements in a traditional Ainu dance with swords but dance is mainly restricted to the wedding ceremony and the party at which Iago gets Othello’s deputy Cassio (Kinji Wanatabe) drunk which seems a shame but, though like many folk forms Ainu dance may imitate animals, perhaps there is no narrative dance tradition to employ theatrically.

A small exhibition about Ainu history and culture is presented alongside the performance.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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