Lara Foot’s Othello revamp reroutes the question of barbarity

Although Shakespeare’s plays are hilarious, tragic, insightful, and ridiculous – sometimes in one text – they are today often better read than watched. Odd, perhaps, given they were made to be watched, but it’s been 400 years and theatre is much altered, human norms a little.

It may be egotistical to mistake the personal for the universal; it seems a Shakespeare play is likely to be mediocre, good at best. As rich as it is on the page, we no longer speak Elizabethan English, and with the advent of social media and instant messaging, it sometimes seems we no longer speak English at all, but converse in pictures, acronyms, and abbreviations which amount to not much more than grunts and grimaces. Small wonder actors often struggle to master the cadence which gives depth to Shakespeare’s language. This is particularly apt when budgets are thin to threadbare and rehearsal time is barely enough to get everyone off book, which is far, far too often the case in South Africa, through no fault of the theatremakers themselves.

Yet, we go, to sit for two hours or more, ever hopeful that perhaps something of the bard’s genius will be conveyed; the trick seems to keep one’s expectations modest.

But on the rare ocassion, what is delivered is so far above our expectation as to make them an insult to art. As a chicken’s thought of flight is to a hawk. Which is the case with Lara Foot’s version of Othello currently playing at the Baxter. Here we have a chicken that soars.

For Othello is a fowl amongst Shakespeare’s plays. It is in essence a soap opera. It lacks the regicide, fratricide, witchery, and mysticism of many of his other works. What we do have, though, is uxoricide, horrifyingly common in South Africa. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice,is also arguably racist in its stereotype of the black man easily manipulated by the Machiavellian European, Iago, although there are counter-arguments. It would be a black man who kills his wife. But of course, Othello being one of Shakespeare’s unsurprisingly few black protagonists, this begs revisioning in a decolonial age. Here, by placing it in German South West Africa, Foot succeeds, despite Othello’s arguable weakness as a character no matter how he is reworked.

Thus, hats off to Atandwa Kani for his ability to make Othello into a man of heroic will and moral fortitude who is undone by the evil manipulation of his trusting good nature. But one wonders: if he is so trusting, why can he not trust Desdemona? The answer may lie in the misogyny at the heart of the patriarchal society in which he is enmeshed, although I’m not convinced it is sufficient justification, even for Elizabethan mores. That Kani can largely overcome these inherent obstacles to win our sympathy is testimony to his prowess.

The villian Iago is of course a gift to an actor, and it is one Albert Pretorius unwraps with relish. Pretorius inhabits the character so well, with such seeming expertise and ease, along with a mastery of the text’s timing that arouses a suspicion he’s thoroughly enjoying his demonic fun. We come to hate him as if he is indeed the man he portrays. An actor cannot succeed in a part more than this.

Carla Smith was superb as Desdemona, and Faniswa Yisa as Emilia was as a hurricane in check – she has the rare ability to dominate the stage with a look – finally loosed in the last act. Wessel Pretorius’s Roderigo brought welcome levity with Bucklandesque physical comedy that has the ability to transform a scene without overwhelming it. He possesses a clown’s sense of the moment.

These were the standouts worth mentioning; all parts were played with aplomb. And they had a stage that set the tone. Gerhard Marx’s years of cutting and slicing and collage to create masterpieces from maps have not been put to waste and are used fantastically here as signifiers, adding poignant symbolism to Othello’s return under colonial order to quell a rebellion in his native land. But Marx used his collages as just one element in a world in which rocks descend as stars, then form a receding horizon of mocking clouds which betray hopes to become rocks suspended as unyielding desert, a weight, a looming threat.

The piles of cloth saturated with what looks very much like the red ochre and fat used by the Himba people to cover their bodies, is an historic glitch (it was largely the Herero and Nam who were slaughtered by the colonialists), but forgiven for its sublime power of suggestion: under Patrick Curtis’s moody lighting they resemble bodies piled up in Germany’s African genocide. They are hauled across the stage on iconic sleds of twisted Namibian hardwood and these, as with all other elements of the set, serve multiple functions. Marx and Curtis deserve to take the stage at the standing ovation. Kyle Shepherd too. His score exquisitely manipulates mood and expectation to be a subtle presence setting the pace.

It is credit to this production that it takes a soap opera and delivers it as a hand-wringingly tense drama that draws spontaneous double-takes, smirks, chuckles, guffaws, and cries from a seasoned audience. There is, too, the fact of Shakespeare being such a part of literature and theatre that there are pleasing resonances, echoes, and surprising chords struck with the modern condition that Foot’s alteration of the ending does not dissipate. Rather, what this excellently conceived multilingual version achieves is to reroute the question of savagery to place it upon the so-called civilised colonialists.

Othello plays at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town until 4 May. Book here.

Photo: Carla Smith as Desdemona and Atandwa Kani as Othello in Lara Foot’s version of the play at the Baxter. Photo credit: Fiona MacPherson.

One thought on “Lara Foot’s Othello revamp reroutes the question of barbarity

  1. Having read the review in The Sunday Times, I thought I’d like to see what Steve Kretzmann says, knowing it would be brilliant, and came here, sure to find his review. sad not to be able to see this show, which sounds incredible, and all the other brilliant theatre that is done in Cape Town (such as Magnet Theatre’s Oedipus in Colonus), I am happy to have been given a vicarious taste of this one.

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