Scene It: Falling in love with a villian beneath the starlit sky

February 3, 2015

The latest local production of William Shakespeare’s 400-year-old tale of betrayal, passion and obsession, Othello, currently running at the breathtakingly beautiful Maynardville Open Air Theatre, has reaffirmed our love for one of The Bard’s most renowned tragedies and malicious character, Iago.


Starring Muntu Ngubane as Othello, Melissa Haiden as Desdemona, Stephen Jubber as Cassio and Marcel Meyer as the wicked Iago, this must-see summer show is directed by Fred Abrahamse.


The Abrahamse/Meyer partnership is renowned for staging award-winning epic productions in Cape Town (Desire Under The Elms, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore and The Tragedy of Richard III to name a few) and for good reason – a show produced by this dynamic duo is bound to be done with flair and finesse, and this is once again the case with Othello.


From the suitably dramatic lighting by the talented Faheem Bardien and the masterful direction by Abrahamse, to the captivating performances by the ensemble cast, Othello easily transports you to politically fraught Venice four centuries ago.


At the heart of it, Othello is a look into “honest“ Iago‘s character. As you sit there, the words of the Merchant in Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites come to mind … “But you know what they say: never trust and honest man.” As the dark and twisted manipulative mind of Iago unfolds before you, as he fights to gain power and revenge, you know this to be truly reflected in Meyer’s brilliant take on Shakespeare’s most devious character.


Meyer is so good at being diabolical, in fact, that you’re left feeling bereft when he leaves the stage for even just the shortest of scenes, eager to learn what his next evil plan will be. One almost feels guilty to be rooting for the villian, because the actor playing him just outshines everyone (no matter how powerful a protagonist) on stage.


Meyer is also the set designer and wardrobe master, impressing us with subtle but important African effects within the characters‘ costumes, in particular Othello’s. A theatrical triple threat indeed! If we could but wish for one thing, it would be that the shift from Venice to Cyprus be more marked in décor, as not everyone in the audience may be that well acquainted with this play as they are for example with the Bard’s “everyday” Romeo and Juliet.


However, the way that the witchdraft element is incorporated is very strikingly done and will leave you debating the symbolism thereof long after you have left the scene of the betrayal … and that is all we are giving away about that!


The fresh-faced Haiden makes for a gorgeous and naïve Desdemona, while Jubber as Cassio had us swooning. Ngubane, the first black actor to play the title character since British born Nigerian actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim in 2001 , certainly fulfils the criteria for looking the part The Moor with his dominant stage presence, but his pronunciation made understanding his lines quite difficult. His rhythm may have been just a little out of the night we were there; a little too much CSI Horatio in awkward pauses, as a friend noted.


While the Bard’s iambic pentameter can become very lullaby-esk boring if done in that dreaded tick-tock fashion, the rest of the cast became their characters with effortless conversational style while yet retaining a truly-Shakespearean delivery.


On asking two of our theatre friends on the night what they thought, there was a bit of a consensus that they loved the play, but almost wanted that Moorish seduction of the mysterious and unknown (a broody element so beautifully captured by Morgan Freeman when he played a Moor named Azeem in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves) to be more prominent. We must agree, we would have liked to see more seduction before Othello went into his jealous rage phase. The chemistry between Othello and his Desdemona was maybe a little too implied. He seemed a little too angry from the start to properly seduce her.


Delivery and interpretation when it comes to the Bard’s work is always a question of taste. Even if some of the characters which we have bonded with over the years (being Bard groupies as we are) may look and play our scenes differently in our heads, we still thoroughly enjoyed this take on Othello. We would go see it again if given the option. You will definitely get your money’s worth when you go see it.


One star of this show deserves an extra mention and that is the gorgeous venue, the Maynardville Open Air Theatre. On the night of our visit, the notorious South Easter was nowhere to be found, the sky was clear and dotted with beautiful stars and there was a sense of wellbeing in the air … The Bard himself could not have chosen a better stage for one of his most beloved plays. Bravo!


Othello runs until 21 February, 2015. Tickets are R 120 to R 180 and are available at Computicket.


Scene It by Fazielah Williams and Barbara Loots.

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