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SCENE IT: Divisive OTHELLO enthrals at the Baxter Theatre

Barbara Loots

 

Lara Foot’s adapted staging of OTHELLO, billed as an ambitious and provocative decolonial interpretation of the original classic, is currently onstage at the Baxter Theatre. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that it will surprise and get people talking is undeniable.

OTHELLO is a favourite of Shakespeare’s tragedies, so it’s been done often and not always to great effect. So, you will forgive me if I admit that when walking into the theatre for this three hour monster I was just a little bit apprehensive. My fears were misplaced, and I was left captivated throughout. Lara Foot and her cast have succeeded where so many have previously failed. I would easily go see this version of OTHELLO again, as it puts a fresh spin on a well-worn theatrical classic.


The story, though set in a more militaristic setting than the Bard envisioned, starts off with the traditional traits of the story clearly present: A daughter disowned by her father because she did not marry a man he deemed worthy of her standing, a hero positioned for a fall, a fool in love, and a jealous honest ‘confidant’… all caught in the grip of manipulative class structures and prejudice. At its crux, OTHELLO is the theatrical exploration of the fallout of the saying ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’.


All those elements are explored in this South African production through dialogue that alternates between English, isiXhosa, Afrikaans and German, while keeping the sense of heightened language. It is set in the time of the Herero uprising in German Southwest Africa, now Namibia, which brings the sadly topical atrocity of genocide into the mix in reflecting on the prejudice that clearly pulses through Shakespeare’s OTHELLO. The performances and design work together to bring the narrative into this specific setting, with the racial tensions pulsing as the undercurrent, until it breaks through to give you an ending that questions the assumed ‘truth’ of Othello.

Albert Pretorius is exquisite as Iago. With just the right degree of malicious mischief, he draws the audience in, and charms you as he charms Othello… the only difference being that the audience knows he is anything but honest, yet you hang on his every word, complicit in the unfairness you know is hurtling towards Othello (Atandwa Kani), Desdemona (Carla Smith) and Cassio (Carlo Daniels). Pretorius finds a strong counterpart in Faniswa Yisa who steps into the role of Iago’s wife, Emilia. Along with Kani, Yisa drives the emotional ending that will leave many stunned.


Every good Shakespearean tragedy needs a fool, and Wessel Pretorius in the role of Rodrigo plays right into that element of the play with great comedic timing. He understands the purpose of his character and leans into it to bring just enough comedic relief amidst the drama and tragedy of it all.


During interval, the conversation did turn to questioning whether the Othello we were seeing here was dominant enough in character, as we all know Shakespeare’s Othello as an ambitious man who knows what he wants, gets it, and is driven slowly mad with jealousy. We were wondering where the power and passion was in Kani’s performance, where was the overly confident and driven Othello in all this? Then we settled into our seats again and the divisive penny dropped:

The Othello as portrayed by Kani is an unwilling participant in this fated tale. He utters the words of Shakespeare’s leading man, yet does so as a character manipulated into participation from the very start. This version of Othello plays into the what-ifs and blind spots of Shakespeare’s narrative. It is then when you really develop empathy for this Othello who stands trapped in the prejudice of the classic text, not allowed the opportunity to challenge his fate. It is then that the power of the twist is slowly revealed. I don’t want to give too much away, as the emotions Othello struggles with as he fights with himself and the fated web of lies Iago has so cleverly put in place, doomed and crushed by the idea that he is called upon to kill what he loves most, is pivotal to the degree to which OTHELLO stands to captivate. Depriving you of that penny-drop moment will minimise the impact of it all.


Admittedly this adaptation of OTHELLO will be divisive. I’ve had many debates since seeing it as to the choices made (regarding structure, language and plot) and not everyone was left as mesmerised as I was.


Whether you will like this staging of OTHELLO or not, will very much depend on how much of an originalist you regard yourself when it comes to the work of the Bard. If you’re not easily upset by someone shaking the obvious classical narratives up a bit, then this OTHELLO may be just your cup of tea. Me, I have only one question: When can someone do this to ROMEO AND JULIET, please?!

Yes, it can perhaps be 20 minutes shorter, but this is still the best staging of OTHELLO that I have seen in a very long time. How often can you say you were surprised by a Shakespearean classic? You may not agree with the surprises it holds, but that you will be surprised is unquestionable. And a bit of disruption has never hurt theatre; in fact theatre needs more disruption if it aims to keep moving forward.


You can catch OTHELLO onstage at the Baxter Theatre until 4 May 2023, with tickets available online through Webtickets.

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