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Bell Shakespeare’s Othello: when the villain is all too believable…

Heather Wallace

Every time Federal Parliament is sitting, I feel like we’re living in an Elizabethan drama.

Political schemes, intrigues and whispered conversations are found as easily on the streets of Manuka and Kingston as they are in Shakespeare’s versions of Venice and Verona.

So I wonder if anyone will be sitting in the audience of Bell Shakespeare’s production of Othello, wondering if there’s an Iago in their own lives someone who seems to be a friend but is secretly scheming against them? The idea leads to a fascinating conversation with Yalin Ozucelik, who portrays Iago, about what makes this play about race, misogyny and betrayal so timeless.

“I’m sure the audience sees elements of people they know,” Yalin says. “There’s a fascination with the existential idea: can you really know the person next to you? It’s a primal fear, plaguing humans for a very long time.”

Othello is Yalin’s favourite Shakespearean play, several years ago he’d been very effected by a production he saw in Toronto, and when the chance to play the scheming Iago for Bell emerged, he threw himself into the role by reading scholarly analyses on Iago’s motivation.

“I get the sense a lot of people think the play should be called Iago, not Othello,” Yalin laughs. “Shakespeare allows him to endear himself to the audience, giving him the third highest number of lines of any of his characters, after Hamlet and Richard III. He talks directly to the audience and in the 60 odd shows we’ve done so far the audience responds initially to his scheming, laughing along. There is something delicious in following someone a bit naughty, and he is VERY naughty.”


Iago (Yalin Ozucelik) and Rodrigo (Edmund Lembke-Hogan)

The naughtiness starts when Iago, the trusted ensign of war hero Othello, confides in the audience his anger at being passed over for promotion and his desire for revenge. His plan includes playing on the insecurities of Othello, a man respected but apart from Venetian society because of his race, by making him believe his new bride Desdemona is unfaithful. Before you can say “that escalated quickly”, the characters are plunged into a maelstrom of violence and tragedy.

Just how far Iago intends his revenge to go though is a subject Yalin has spent quite a bit of time pondering. “I’m always careful to say he is not a good character gone wrong, but I don’t think he is a capital V villain either. I think he is very human and sufferers from human frailties. I don’t think he intends anyone to die, he just wants to cause havoc. He is actually an ineffectual villain at first, he fails miserably initially to break up Othello and Desdemona’s marriage.”

Yalin is quick to add that Iago is never a nice character, and his early lines suggest he has manipulated others for small personal gains throughout his career. “There is a lot of self-loathing in some of his lines, and he considers himself to be the epitome of a self-sufficient man. Life is black and white, if you are not a winner you are a loser, and he wants to be a winner. By the end though he is a true villain.”

Yalin tells me he was a bit taken aback after a recent performance in Townsville. “After the show we bumped into a group of school students and they said Iago was their favourite character. It was hard to know what to say.” It’s at this point I confess my own decades-long fascination with Iago, that started when I too saw a production as a high school student when, sitting in the front row of the theatre, the actor playing Iago directed his soliloquy straight to me. So was born both a love of theatre and a love of morally ambiguous bad guys in young Heather.

Yalin laughs when I tell him the story and says that depending on the theatre he tries something similar. “Some theatres are hard to see individuals but I try to eyeball a few when I can. I’m actually really excited to be playing in Canberra Theatre, it really is one of my favourite theatres to perform in.”

Director Peter Evans has made some minor changes to the play but racism and misogyny are still at the heart of the production. “We like to bring up the issues in Q&As after the show, particularly with school groups. Violence, misogyny, casual and overt racism are still such issues in today’s world,” Yalin says, “It’s truly horrible and this is the chance to tackle it head on. By the end the audience members who laughed with Iago at the start feel complicit.”

For all that the villain may be charming and appealing, in the end, devastation happens when good people allow themselves to be swayed. We really are living in Shakespearean times aren’t we?

the essentials

What: Othello by Bell Shakespeare
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
When: 14–22 October
How much: Adults $67–$93.50; Concession $67–$79.50; Under 18s $37.50
Find more information and purchase tickets here:

Images by Daniel Boud


Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (, is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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