Review: OTHELLO at the Baxter Theatre Centre Is a Relevant Retelling of the Classic Tragedy

The production, adapted and directed by Foot, debuted at the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus in 2023

By: Apr. 13, 2024
Review: OTHELLO at the Baxter Theatre Centre Is a Relevant Retelling of the Classic Tragedy
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Shakespeare’s OTHELLO, written in the early 1600s, predates traditional notions of decoloniality and, arguably, colonialism itself. Nonetheless, it is a text that, some contend, contains a built-in decolonial perspective or, at the very least, lends itself to be staged through this lens. This production of Othello, directed by Lara Foot, is situated within the context of the Scramble for Africa in what was German South West Africa, during the time of the Herero Uprising in the early 1900s.

Foot’s sterling cast is headed by Atandwa Kani, who delivers a magnificent performance in the titular role. His portrayal of the tortured General is perfectly balanced, both subtle and full of emotion. Don’t miss him. Carla Smith makes for an ethereal Desdemona and the pair has a chemistry that sizzles onstage. Smith portrays Desdemona’s fragility and strength in equal measure and is exquisite in this role.

I also really enjoyed Carlo Daniels as the ever-dashing Cassio. His portrayal is well rounded, convincing and varied. Two unexpected highlights, since these characters are usually somewhat sidelined, are Roderigo and Emilia. Wessel Pretorius is hilarious as Roderigo. Usually pathetic, Pretorius plays him so endearingly, that we fall in love with the hopelessly infatuated dupe by the end of his first scene. His comedic timing is a treat.

Likewise, Faniswa Yisa crafts a rebellious Emilia. Foot has given this character much more of a voice than in the original work and she takes on a much more agential role. Yisa thrives in this part and provides Emelia with a depth that the character often lacks. The choice to cast a black woman as Iago’s wife also forces the audience to confront not only stereotypes regarding black masculinities but those of black femininities as well, and Foot has found a way to weave fetishisation of black bodies into the narrative through Emilia and Iago’s relationship.

Review: OTHELLO at the Baxter Theatre Centre Is a Relevant Retelling of the Classic Tragedy

And now onto Albert Pretorius’ Iago. Iago is central to OTHELLO as the puppet master – the evil genius. In this production, Iago takes on a far more overt sense of villainy than he usually does. He isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, and indeed he does. I have mixed feelings about this new Iago. Don’t get me wrong. I understand the necessity thereof, especially if we look at Iago as a metaphor for the historical (and often continuing) violence of whiteness, colonialism and racism. At the same time, to me, what makes Iago so successful as an antagonist (and Iago is my favourite of all Shakespeare’s villains), is his ability to manipulate without taking on an active role. He achieves his aims by proxy. That is not always so in this production.

Indeed, Albert Pretorius’ Iago is not like any portrayal I have seen before. This Iago is less subtle and sometimes less sophisticated. I usually ‘love to hate’ Iago. There is something sexy in how covertly diabolical he is. Here, that slick, oily façade is stripped away and we are left with a much more obviously callous, less charming Iago. It is not Pretorius with whom I take issue – he is as excellent as ever – but I struggled to detach from the way in which I have come to view Iago as a character. Indeed, he is written differently here. In spite of this, this deviation works in the context of this production: Foot disturbs the original narrative to confront stereotypes about black masculinities which here are engineered by the most dangerous kinds of white violence. After all, why should such violence be disguised by charm? And yet is often is.

Review: OTHELLO at the Baxter Theatre Centre Is a Relevant Retelling of the Classic Tragedy

I enjoyed the breaking of the fourth wall to incriminate the audience in Iago’s scheme: the house lights come up while Othello lingers in the gallery – he is called back onstage by another character to ‘play his part’ as a black man. We too, as audience members no longer in the dark, are forced to confront our own parts and pasts in modern day South Africa and beyond. What are we doing to maintain ongoing power structures, tropes and stereotypes? Are we playing our parts? These are some of the thought-provoking questions raised by this production of OTHELLO.

Gerhard Marx’s set and costume design as well as Patrick Curtis’ lighting design are inspired. The floating branches and rocks are particularly effective in a world going to pieces: where nothing is as it should be and Othello’s grasp of reality hangs in the balance.

Foot's retelling of one of the Bard's classic tragedies confirms OTHELLO as a piece of theatre still relevant as ever. It demands accountability from its audience and it does while delivering superb performances.

OTHELLO runs from 6 April to 4 May 2024 at the Baxter Theatre Centre. Tickets range from R150 to R185 and are available via Webtickets.

Image credit: Fiona Macpherson


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