Experiencing Think Theatre’s Othello: a production for South African students

Think Theatre, a production company which stages set-works (including prescribed Shakespeare plays) for South African school students has, over the last few months, upheld its firmly established reputation, taking on the monumental task of performing Hamlet and Othello to thousands of learners all over the country. Last week, two new members of the Shakespeare ZA team, Marguerite de Waal and Kirsten Dey, attended the last performance of the company’s highly-acclaimed production of Othello at the Brooklyn Theatre in Pretoria.

As students, amateur scholars and teachers of Shakespeare in South Africa, we have found ourselves in a contentious field of study and interest. Considering the stir caused by the latest controversy as to Shakespeare’s place on the curriculum at South African high schools, we were enthusiastic and somewhat apprehensive upon venturing out of the University grounds on a week day at noon to see Think Theatre’s production of Othello – looking forward to engaging with Shakespeare performed as opposed to read, but apprehensive about the way the rest of the audience would respond to the play. Would their perception of the bard be tainted before they had had a chance to experience his work performed?

As we arrived at Brooklyn theatre and found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of high school students, we realised that we, along with the bustling, bubbling group, found ourselves excited at the prospect of escaping our various personal realities. Once we were escorted to the back of the theatre and took our seats, the lights dimmed, narrowing to a single spotlight on the director of Think Theatre’s Othello and Hamlet, Claire Mortimer. She addressed the students (us included – one is always a student of Shakespeare’s!) with sass and grace, welcoming us to her home – the theatre – and told us that we were about to engage with the work of the master of the human condition, encouraging us to receive the play in that light. Her introduction framed the experience of watching the play not as an escape from reality, but rather as a journey into its depths. One is confronted with the ultimate, charismatic, psychopathic villain in Iago; the weak and dupe-able minion in Roderigo; the naïve and earnest beloved in Desdemona; the intensely human, idealistic, flawed hero in Othello. And thus, one is reminded of the various faces of human character and the ways in which it responds to its varying contexts.

Mortimer was already in the costume she would wear as Emilia, identified herself as an actor in the play and engaged with the audience in a way that was personal, which further dispelled the illusion that what would appear before us was a world and reality unlike and apart from our own. Thus, as the lights refocused on the confabulating Iago and Roderigo in the first scene of the play, we were left to perceive them not as isolated entities but as representations of aspects of our own character.

This post is designed as more of a reflection on the production than a review of it. To this end, we have each identified three factors of the performance which we felt were particularly effective or interesting within the context of a Shakespearean play staged for South African learners:


Ø  The actors’ awareness of and responsiveness to their audience was commendable. As I chatted to Claire Mortimer after the show, she enthused about the reactions of the students, drawing the connection between the ‘groundlings’ of Shakespeare’s day and the clear involvement of the students in the play as it is performed to them in 2017. The kind of cold-blooded reverence sometimes expected of audiences (as evidence of their right to such high-brow pursuits as playgoing) would only serve to entrench a view of Shakespeare and Shakespearean theatre as a distant, elitist, and monolithic institution. The Think Theatre team avoided any such error: the actors in this were able to read and respond to the reactions of their audience, and the audience was given space to respond to the actors.

Ø  A good example of this positive actor-audience dynamic which deserves a special mention is the character of Iago, portrayed by Chris van Rensburg. Iago’s numerous monologues verge on dialogues with the audience: spectators are given fairly direct access to his scheming thoughts, and are almost always aware of how he will steer the plot onwards. Van Rensburg uses this opportunity to elicit reactions from the audience, in a skilful performance which seems to understand that the more the audience can be brought to react to the character, the greater their emotional investment will be in the final outcome for him and the victims of his villainous machinations. Iago is a demanding role, and Van Rensburg manages to make the character as fascinating as he is detestable: one student went so far as to run to the foot of the stage to applaud him as the actors took a bow at the end.

Ø  Lastly, I think the treatment of the text, especially in terms of pacing, was done well. It is quite possible for a production of a Shakespeare play to run for three hours or longer: too long for an average spectator (never mind a distractible school student) to remain focused. Think Theatre’s Othello managed to make any shortening of the play quite unnoticeable and keep the running time to less than two and a half hours, all while maintaining a steady pace which kept the performance moving forward without losing essential depth or detail. The production therefore encapsulated the elements of the play necessary to a matriculant’s study of it, and it did so without compromising on an engaged, high-quality performance.   


Ø  Cara Roberts is a fascinatingly human Desdemona alongside the engaging Nhlakanipho Manqele as Othello. I can imagine that it would be difficult to portray Desdemona, a character who is viewed as a spiritual envoy and metonymically comes to represent perfection itself when she is simply a young woman, perhaps still a girl, who is naïve, headstrong and who certainly experiences desire. As such, Desdemonas may be inclined to teeter on the edge of angelic melodrama. Roberts, however, has the fraught, captivating energy necessary to make the character human and believable. This could be one of the reasons the audience reacted to her with such vigorous applause: they could identify with her. Similarly, Manqele is also able to avoid the temptation of portraying Othello as a one-sided, demonic counterpart to Desdemona’s potentially beatific character. Rather, Manqele ensures that Othello is relatable and human in his anguish – thus enabling the audience to retain sympathy for him as a complex character, which is essential in provoking the necessary cathartic response to his violent, jealous madness.

Ø  The set is simple, the stage fairly bare, and little is made of references which might contextualise the play, heightening the sense that the narrative of Othello could take place in any milieu. Furthermore, the actors do not foreground Shakespeare’s English in a way that distances the audience from the characters but rather engage with the dialogue in a naturalistic manner. Hence, the production appears to be focused on the timelessness of the narrative, which is important when most of the members of a South African student audience are approaching the play as second language speakers, which is certainly a significant barrier. As such, it is important to portray the play as a text which while requiring effort is, in essence, accessible.

Ø  The final aspect of Think Theatre’s Othello to which I want to draw attention is the reaction of the audience to the production. About half way through Othello, I realised that I was watching two performances: that of the actors on the stage before me and that of the students engaging with the play. I came to be as fascinated by the one as I was by the other – perhaps because I am no longer just a student myself, but a teacher too. I like to know what makes the minds with which I work tick. Students from various schools, various backgrounds, were on the edge of their seats, clicking their tongues at the devious Iago, gasping in horror at Othello’s self-destruction, cringing at Desdemona’s naïve pursuit of Cassio’s defence in the face of Othello’s increasing suspicion, and quietly covering their mouths as Othello strangled Desdemona in their bed. And when the actors emerged from the wings to bow for the audience, they were met by an uproar of applause, indicating, perhaps, that the relevance of a playwright who has been perceived as outdated, colonial and abstruse may lie in the fact that his work is fundamentally relatable in its attempts to explore, understand and problematise what it means to be human.

After the show, the students from each school headed back to their respective buses in the wintry afternoon sunlight. Many had travelled quite a way to get there, and it was time for the long journey back. We sat down in the now-empty theatre restaurant to reflect on the show over a cup of coffee with Mortimer and her colleague, Margie Coppen – the company’s publicist and booking agent.

As we discussed the logistics of a travelling production such as theirs, the size and scale of their undertaking became increasingly evident. When staged at set venues in Gauteng, for example, both Othello and Hamlet were performed every weekday. In KwaZulu-Natal, the plays were performed in a variety of venues, to a total of more than 22 000 students. The tour is wide-reaching, and wildly differing staging spaces and access to resources come with the territory. The entire crew’s adaptability to their varying environments attests to their practised skill as well as their determination to reach as many learners from as many backgrounds as possible.

This determination seems to be driven by a deep understanding of the necessity of experiencing the plays in performance, especially for students studying Shakespeare’s texts at a high school level in a context where performances (and experiences) of Shakespeare outside of schools are highly localised. Performance is essential to the understanding of dramatic form. Plays can be studied and enjoyed through reading, certainly, but without an awareness of the purpose and character of different forms of literary expression, too much of the richness of a text might be lost. This poses a massive challenge in the South African context: if dramatic texts such as (but not limited to) Shakespeare’s are to be studied effectively, then students must have access not only to static knowledge about such texts, but also to experiences of them as artworks designed for interpretation and immediacy through performance.

Reflecting on Think Theatre’s achievements, two things become clear. Firstly, there are talented, passionate theatre-makers who are able to respond to an essential need in the education of South African learners. Secondly, this need has not been met fully yet: much more support is needed for projects such as Think Theatre, which provide professional, consistent, and mobile productions of plays for school students.

The SA Shakespeare media roadshow: Fiddling while Rome burns?

A few weeks ago, there was another brief kerfuffle over Shakespeare's place on the curriculum at South African high schools. Shakespeare scholar, editor of the journal Shakespeare in Southern Africa and occasional troublemaker, Chris Thurman, was asked to weigh in on the matter. In this post he shares both his pleasure and his discomfort at tackling the topic of Shakespeare-in-schools when, to put it mildly, South Africans had more urgent fish to fry.  


On a Monday morning, towards the end of March, my phone rang. It was Stephen Grootes, host of the Midday Report on sister radio stations 702 and Cape Talk. I’ve been on Stephen’s show a few times before, talking about writers and artists in a five-minute segment he allocates at the end of his hour to news that isn’t quite “hard news”. As a journalist Stephen is always half a step ahead of the news cycle and – because I’m usually at least a few steps behind – I know that when he calls me in the morning, a famous author has died overnight, or a new painting of the presidential penis is doing the rounds on social media, and I’d better do some research and develop an opinion on the matter because he wants me to share it with his listeners in a few hours’ time.



On this occasion, however, I was already prepared. Like Stephen, I had read an article in the Business Day announcing: “Shakespeare may be taken out of classroom”. It followed a comment by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga regarding “decolonisation” and curriculum review. In reply to a parliamentary question from the DA, Motshekga had affirmed vaguely that “the consideration of the works of Shakespeare is an aspect of the overall literature review process targeted for 2020”.


For people in my line of work, talk about decolonising Shakespeare is neither scary nor new (one of the first blog posts on ShakespeareZA was an account by Lliane Loots of the “Decolonising Shakespeare” colloquium held in Durban last October, papers from which will be published in a special issue of the journal Shakespeare in Southern Africa later this year). But the prospect of Shakespeare’s removal from the high school curriculum evidently struck a collective national nerve. For the next two weeks, as Jacob Zuma did his best to torpedo the South African economy and entrench his position as looter-in-chief of the public purse – and as the country’s citizens vented their anger at state capture – I was asked again and again for comment on the Bard (a moniker I don’t particularly like, by the way, but that’s a blog for another day).    


If I’d known that I would subsequently have many more opportunities to talk about the Shakespeare-in-schools issue, I wouldn’t have tried to fit so much into a few minutes on the Midday Report. But I didn’t know, so I did try, which meant that I spoke very fast – as I usually do when a topic enthuses me – too fast, apparently, for the behind-the-scenes team at 702, who introduced their podcast of the discussion by affirming that “Prof Chris Thurman of the English department at Wits University says William Shakespeare no longer has relevance for South African children.” As you can imagine, this would be a rather controversial (not to mention hypocritical) position for the president of the Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa to adopt.


What I actually said, in response to Stephen’s opening question, “Does Shakespeare still have relevance for South African children today?”, was that “The short answer, the easy answer, might be no...” I then went on to give a slightly longer, less easy answer! It was a refrain I’d be repeating, with variations, over the fortnight to come:


- teaching Shakespeare at university, as I do, is very different to teaching him at high school

- studying Shakespeare can be an invigorating and inspiring experience if teachers have the requisite knowledge and skills, and schools have the resources to give their learners access to the plays in performance

- translation of Shakespeare’s plays into South African languages has been a limited success but needs to be pursued more rigorously, both for the classroom and the stage (and screen)

- high school learners can encounter Shakespeare outside of the formal curriculum (for example through the Shakespeare Schools Festival)

- Shakespeare’s work can shine a light on South Africa’s past and present, and vice-versa, but we have to avoid easy recourse to cliché terms like “universal genius” in understanding Shakespeare’s global presence – he is connected, whether we like it or not, to a centuries-long colonial process in countries like SA; and he is linked to debates about the role of the English language in this country, as well as English cultural and linguistic imperialism.


(A different version of these points can be found at The Conversation, after that fine platform’s education editor, Natasha Joseph, sent me some questions to answer. Undoubtedly, Natasha also came up with the best headline on the subject, “Shakespeare in South African schools: to die, to sleep – or perchance to dream?”)


There was more of the same on Cape Talk’s Breakfast with Kieno Kammies the next day, as Kieno quizzed Motshekga’s spokesperson, Troy Martens, along with me. On this occasion I found myself referring to “pearl-clutching” in describing the response of shock and horror that some people have to the claim that Shakespeare does not automatically merit special treatment and need not get priority ahead of other authors. It seems a useful image to convey an unnecessary over-reaction. If “pearl-clutching” implies a certain demographic, however, it is inadequate. As I was reminded when listeners phoned in during a longer interview with Rowena Baird on SAfm (a really enjoyable discussion, of which unfortunately there is no record), Shakespeare’s most ardent fans – like his most strident detractors – come from all categories of age, race, class and gender.


By this stage, word of Shakespeare’s impending exit from SA’s classrooms (Shaxit?) had spread to the UK – where there is, of course, a strong investment in Shakespeare’s global status. A student at the University of Warwick, writing in campus publication The Boar, fretted over a (much-misquoted) professor, one Chris Thurman, who appeared to be an advocate of “excising Shakespeare’s work from the curriculum altogether”. Luckily, when the BBC picked up on the story, I could position myself between the PRO and ANTI Shakespeare camps – because I am not in the business of proselytising, but I am interested in the reasons that learners leave high school with such strongly divergent views on Shakespeare. And my fellow interviewee, Charlotte Scott of Goldsmith’s college, made it clear that an enthusiastic awareness of what Shakespeare can mean and do and be for learners is not at odds with (and in fact should be informed by) an equal awareness of the difficulties that Shakespeare presents.



It was fortunate that, between all this talk about talking about Shakespeare, I had the opportunity to travel to the University of Pretoria to see DCoriolanus – a devised student production (conceived and directed by Myer Taub) that, as the title suggests, was crucially concerned with what “Decolonising Shakespeare” might mean for and in performance. I wrote about the experience of watching DCoriolanus in my weekly Business Day dispatch. What I didn’t mention in the column was that I joined a panel discussion after the show in which a few of the panelists – myself included – expressed disquiet about my compromised place as a white male English professor presuming to hold forth about decolonisation.     


To complete the circle, I ended up back at 702. This time it was for The Literature Corner with Eusebius McKaiser and a more leisurely conversation, not just about Shakespeare in schools but about Shakespeare in SA more generally. This gave me the chance to do my “Shakespeare and the ANC” bit again, making the case that understanding the shifting attitudes towards Shakespeare of prominent members of the ruling party (from Sol Plaatje to Thabo Mbeki, perhaps via Nelson Mandela on Robben Island) can give us tremendous insight into the organisation’s contradictions and, indeed, into our current moment of crisis under Jacob Zuma. This is basically a synopsis of a seminar elective I’m teaching to a group of Wits University second years, but sharing it seemed apposite because I knew that there were more urgent conversations to have. My overwhelming sense, from my first interview with Stephen Grootes, was that we were taking up time on the airways that could better be allocated to the country’s BIG PROBLEMS (both acute and chronic). There are, of course, various responses that might allay such anxieties. One is that media consumers don’t only want to listen to, watch or read about Zuma, even though his cabal represents a clear and present danger to South Africa’s democracy. Another is that it would be rather arrogant to assume, if I was on TV or radio talking about the reasons behind the president’s proclivity for firing competent finance ministers, that my opinions might have any influence on the matter. I would have done better to join a protest march.


Instead, something better happened in the discussion with Eusebius. My fellow guest, Deborah Seddon of Rhodes University, rightly shifted the focus to the South African secondary education system more broadly. She warned of the risk that Minister Motshekga and others in government may choose the low-hanging fruit of paying lip service to decolonisation rather than fixing schools and the material conditions under which most learning takes place (or doesn’t take place) in this country. Talking to Eusebius and Deborah about the failings of our school system, I was reminded again that discussing Shakespeare’s place on the curriculum – and the wider topic of his history in SA – is not at odds with discussing economic inequality, or racism and sexism, or poor policies, or bad appointments, or skewed spending priorities.


Shakespeare is so embedded in education in SA that he is, whether we like it or not, part of the problem. But the good news is that – if we can find more nuanced ways of talking about him, of studying and translating and performing his plays – he may also be part of the solution.



The Robben Island Shakespeare

Shakespeare ZA is delighted to welcome guest blogger MATTHEW HAHN. Matthew has some exciting news about his play, The Robben Island Shakespeare, and related projects ...



In the 1970s, as South Africans suffered under and attempted to resist apartheid legislation, a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare was smuggled around the prison on Robben Island. The book's significance resides in the fact that its owner, Sonny Venkatratham, passed it to a number of his fellow political prisoners in the single cells (including Nelson Mandela), asking them to mark their favourite passages with a signature and date. The book became informally known as "The Robben Island Bible". Numerous prisoners selected the speeches that meant the most to them and their experience as political prisoners.  
In 2008 and 2010, I conducted interviews with eight former political prisoners in South Africa who were on Robben Island and signed Sonny’s "Bible". I wrote a verbatim play, weaving Shakespeare's words together with first-hand accounts from these men. They offer their reflections on their time as liberation activists and, twenty years later, on the costs and consequences - on whether or not it was all worth it. The result is a vivid and startling picture of the experiences of these political prisoners.  
For more information about the play and the accompanying Ethical Leadership Workshops, please visit The Robben Island Shakespeare website
The play has now been published by Methuen Drama, an inprint of Bloomsbury. Here is an extract from John Kani’s Foreword to the book: 

"Matthew Hahn has reignited the debate about the importance of something that is missing today in my country, intellectual discourse amongst the academics, politicians and leaders. There is a conspiracy of silence that has blanketed all of us for fear of being marginalised by those who may disagree with us. Free speech is being threatened by the fear of being labelled as counter revolutionary. Looking at what is happening today in my country, sometimes I wonder what would these men and women who spent nearly their entire lives in exile, in prisons around South Africa and on Robben Island, think about what we are doing to our country today. We have become the biggest opposition to our own newly found democracy. Corruption at the highest level of Government is the order of the day. In just over two decades we have lost the moral high ground that we proudly occupied in the world. We are now being referred to as the most corrupt government in Africa, the crime capital of the world, a country ravaged by HIV and AIDS while we have the resources and capacity to do something about it, the most unstable economy in Africa. We have forgotten what we promised our people in 1955 when we founded the Freedom Charter which is the foundation of our Constitutional Democracy ...  Matthew Hahn’s The Robben Island Shakespeare is indeed a manual for both the young and old in South Africa and the world, to help us charter the difficult journey of life and the survival of the human spirit, Ubuntu, against all odds."   

The Robben Island Shakespeare will be launched on the 28th of March 2017 at 6pm at South Africa House in London. If you are in London and would like to attend the launch, please RSVP to Pumela Salela (Country Head: UK Brand South Africa).  Places are limited so please make sure to reserve in advance.  


Shakespeare Club at the National Children's Theatre

Four hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare remains the most widely read and performed playwright in the world. What makes him so admired? Some scholars believe that his writings still shape the way we see ourselves as human beings. At the Shakespeare Club we will read his plays and try to allow his magic to work in us.

The Club is aimed at anyone interested in Shakespeare: those who have already read and enjoyed some of his plays as well as those who have never read a single line but are intrigued to explore. There is room for those who love to read aloud and for those who prefer to sit quietly and follow the text as it is performed.

The Club will be led by Dr Rohan Quince (ex Head of English at King David School and a Shakespeare expert). [And the director of the NCT's fantastic 2016 production of Coriolanus - ED]

The Club will meet every Saturday afternoon from 28 January 2017,  during Government School terms, from 14:30 to 16:30 in the Music Room.

Phone Cindy on 011 484 1584 to enrol.

Cost –  R1080.00 per term or R120.00 per Saturday class

Learners - If you are not sure whether to join to the Club - you are welcome to come to the first meeting and check whether it’s for you. This club is suitable for high school learners.