Opening night and Maynardville is filling up nicely. The weather is playing along with barely a hint of a breeze. It’s the second year in a row that Artscape is hosting Othello and there is a tangible feeling of expectation, as fellow thespians wonder at how much growth director Fred Abrahamse will have been able to show with his cast and crew this year.
The lights go up and we’re off to a disappointing start. Iago, played by Marcel Meyer, swallows the majority of his opening soliloquy as he rushes headlong into his lines at an alarming rate.
The scene is set for the opening act and soon we find the performance on stage being buoyed by an inspired portrayal of Roderigo by Matthew Baldwin.
Before long the cast settles into the swing of things and earlier doubts are swept aside as Robin Smith's powerful stage presence is made felt with a portrayal of Brabantio who will be all too sorely missed as the performance continues.
The long awaited appearance of Pope Jerrod as Othello is at hand and I find myself virtually hanging off the edge of my seat.
Calamity strikes as Othello’s opening scene falls flat, with more than just a minor hint of an Americanized accent throwing me off. Even harsher still, I find his cadence and tempo off putting and before I know, I’m lost in one of my most beloved of the Shakespearian plays.
Fortunately, a minor respite is in order as Desdemona makes her appearance. Played by Melissa Haiden I find myself being reeled back into the story as Desdemona makes an impassioned plea to her father Brabantio, to respect her feelings and love for our leading man, Othello. This wonderful performance leaves a sour taste when it is proven a lie as our leading couple fail to show any semblance of onstage chemistry. A failing which holds true right up until the penultimate and ever heart-wrenching death scene late in the second half.
A serviceable Cassio, played by Stephen Jubber and Emelia, Lee-Ann van Rooi round off what turns out to be a humdrum first half. Frustrated as occasional showings of brilliance are juxtaposed with basic “going through the motions” delivery of lines.
Second half is about to commence and I’m a little apprehensive. I eye ball seats clearly abandoned by other patrons affected by the lacklustre first half, wondering if I should sneak out before the actors take to the stage.
Fortunately I do not as I would have missed a slightly rejuvenated cast attack the stage and deliver some of the most powerful performances of the evening.
Where has Lee-Ann van Rooi been hiding during the first half I wonder. There is a fire in Emelia as she is used and abused and eventually destroyed by the man she has been shackled to. Her devotion as handmaiden to Lady Desdemona shines through and burns fiercely. Marcel Meyer turns into a much more believable Iago, with moments of insight that has me coming to new found realizations about the character and possible motive for his despicable actions and dealings.
All too soon the three performers who have captivated me throughout the yarn lie bloody and dead. Dear misused Roderigo, the doteful yet easily mislead Emelia, and the fair innocent Lady Desdemona.
Now our journey through three hours of fitful escapism draws to a close and I’m left feeling cheated by the entire experience. It was opening night and I, as always, forgive much. There are of course pitfalls to taking a lenient opinion-approach to any play which has such a major following and rich history of powerful performances.
What we can judge are the individual performances and the chemistry onstage. Unfortunately many of the individual performances were either flat or felt like rote performances, with players biding their time and trudging through the same old lines and hitting the same old cues. An uninspired Othello coupled with the lack of onstage chemistry with Lady Desdemona made it all too abundantly clear that this was a set and performance meant to transport us away but eventually had me standing on the platform waiting for a train that never came.
Ultimately a frustrating evening where at least the spirit of theatre was kept alive by a few wonderfully magical moments. I just wish there had been more.
One feels that perhaps Fred Abrahamse left his cast to work out their characters’ driving forces and personalities on their own, without having them become a cohesive unit, each one integral in helping to show the depth and scope of their fellow players.
Perhaps it all comes down to opening night jitters and a severe case of audience envy. Or perhaps I was put off by Othello referring to the handkerchief of death as a “napkin”.
Ultimately, whenever there are bums in seats, I consider it a victory for theatre. But how many more lacklustre performances will the theatre crowd endure before those bums start staying home?
Theatre Scene Cape Town would love to hear your thoughts on Othello too. With a setting as enchanting as the picturesque Maynardville Open-air Theatre, complimented by the beautiful lighting design (by Faheem Bardien), striking costume design (by Marcel Meyer), and tension-building original score (by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder), in the end, theatre wins by sheer magical ambiance, if not by overall performance. So book your tickets at Computicket, and tweet your thoughts to @TheatreSceneCpt.