VALIANT OTHELLO

IN 2007, RAY CHONG NEE VOWED THAT ONE DAY HE WOULD PLAY OTHELLO FOR BELL SHAKESPEARE. IN 2016, HE’S ABOUT TO DO PRECISELY THAT. WE TALKED TO HIM ABOUT THE JOURNEY SO FAR, AND THE ROAD AHEAD.

When did director Peter Evans first talk to you about playing Othello?
I can remember the exact moment when Peter floated the question last year. I was in Melbourne, the phone rang, and Peter said, “Would you be interested in playing Othello?” My heart leapt almost out of my mouth but I caught it, put it back down and said, “Yes”.

We talked about the context of what he wanted to do and how he saw it. And I revealed to him that in 2007 I was on the street in Sydney and I’d seen some banners hanging from lampposts advertising the Bell Shakespeare production of Othello with Wayne Blair. I distinctly remember looking at that banner and thinking: “One day, I’m going to do that play with that company”.

So when Peter called and asked me – that’s why my heart leapt up. I still can’t quite believe that it’s happening!

Rehearsals are not far away now. How are you feeling?
I’m very scared about it but I think that’s a good thing because it proves I care about the project. I’ve done a lot of preparation and I go through phases where I think I’m on track but, then again, I don’t want to get complacent.

Othello will tour nationally for six months. You were in the Bell Shakespeare Players in 2013, spending months performing in communities around the country. What did you learn from that experience that might help you this time around?
Being in The Players was quite physically demanding. We would do a maximum of three shows per day, and maybe a show in the evening too. Plus you had the car rides with your fellow cast mates. So in essence it would be nine or ten hours every day that you would have to be “switched on”.

We had to learn to look after our voices and look after ourselves physically. If there was an injury, we had to learn to perform particular actions differently. And we had to be very caring about each other. So what I learned in that tour was how to sustain myself over a long period of time.

What research have you done for Othello?
Preparing for any role usually involves familiarising myself with the script and the world of the play and I’m doing that. But with Othello, it’s been different too. It feels to me like my preparation has been everything in my life. I’ve been reflecting on how this boy from Samoa grew up to become a Samoan fellow in Australia 33 years later.

What excites you about this production?
This is not a European Othello. We’re talking about an Australasian Othello. So the culture I will bring into it is from the Pacific and the faces on the stage will be Australian.

A big part of me is very proud that I can represent my culture and the Pacific nations on the mainstage. The tour gives me the chance to reach places like Casula and to be able to invite my community and say, “Look my brown-skinned brothers and sisters: if you have a dream then you can do it. You can get educated. You can speak words from other tongues. You can do it”. In these cultures there is so much history and so many stories that are like Shakespeare’s but from a different place and a different time. For me, I’m excited about being a member of our community and being on stage sharing this story.

Othello is more than 400 years old. Why is it still relevant today?
Until the divide between black people and white people is non-existent, then this play still has relevance. And beyond the “race” word I would use the word “otherness”. We look at people differently whether they’re disabled, coloured, foreign, from a different socio-economic background etc. I also think there’s a lot to talk about regarding domestic violence in this play.

Othello is very much the flawed hero. The audience sympathises when he is the victim of racism and deceit, but later that turns to horror when he kills Desdemona.
We’re uncomfortable with what he does in the end, absolutely, but we can see how he gets there. He lives in a world of struggle, where he was born from royal blood, went into slavery and now his ambition has brought him to Venice. Ambition drives him but sometimes ambition can blind people too. And he is from a military background so there is the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder to consider.

As a man, I’m sickened by domestic violence and I don’t condone what he does in any way, shape or form. But I can understand the effects of racism. I can understand being with a white partner and that little jealousy that can happen. More often than not I’m surrounded by caucasian people and, I hate to say it, but sometimes I feel like the “token” or like something exotic. I can see where those little niggles can become seeds and how those seeds can grow.

What are you most looking forward to in the coming weeks?
Something that I really cherish about tours like this is being able to see lots of Australia that many people never get to see. And I’m also going to be acting with a great cast. I’ve worked with James Lugton before and I’ve seen Elizabeth Nabben on stage. I know Michael Wahr from Melbourne. All the cast are very exciting actors. They’re all very versed in the text. So I’m really looking forward to working with them.

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello will be performed in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney – and tour nationally – between July and December 2016. Details at Bellshakespeare.com.au

Interview by Andy McLean